Powered by Bravenet Bravenet Blog

Subscribe to Journal

Monday, September 1st 2014


The Grand Prix of Alexandria

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: managing

Life is a lot like a go-kart race. “How so?” you ask. “I don't know,” I must respond. I just thought I should start this entry with something that sounded like a profound insight—so profound, in fact, that its meaning and significance eludes your otherwise insightful bloggist. Perhaps unconsciously I feel the need to cover up the possibly perceived shallowness of writing a blog entry on go-kart races (leaving aside for the moment the question of how one can feel anything without being conscious of it). Actually, as I'm thinking of it, we could turn this into a contest to see who can come up with the best conclusion to the statement:

Life is like a go-kart race because …

I will judge the entries on the basis of wit, wisdom, and literary merit. The winner will receive a prize, though I haven't had time yet to decide what it will be. Multiple submissions are permitted. Just keep them clean, please. You may use the comment feature on this blog or on Facebook.

Alexandria Grand Prix


As you may have noticed by the current paucity of postings, I've been schlepping around a bit in the last little while. The recent travel, culminating in the vigil with G'ma Anderson, has taken more out of me than I thought, I guess. Whatever resurgence of energy was meant to have come out of the retreat to Brown County was not allowed to last. Please don't get me wrong; the time in Michigan was worthwhile, but overall I'm just more sapped than I had hoped to be right now. The PD symptoms have increased at the moment, though they are still responding well to the Levo pills. But, one of the consequences is that e-mails that require lengthier answers, papers and articles that some of you have sent me to critique, and other such matters are  taking longer than I want them to. On several items, I got started, but then just couldn't maintain the momentum to keep going. Please be patient.


 And now for something you will really like.


A while back I dropped hints about a mystery book that was coming out. It is now available. Mark S. Phillips has republished The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories by Wilhelm Schmidt, translated by H. J. Rose. I refer to it multiple times in my In the Beginning God; the problem has been that only used copies have been available, and I don't think I've seen one advertised for under a hundred dollars on any site. I know I spent well over a hundred for my copy about ten years ago. The German original, Handbuch der Vergleichenden

Religionsgeschichte (Münster: Aschendorff, 1930), has been available for around 20 Euros, but the price of the out-of-print English translation has been prohibitive—until now. It's now listed on the Barnes and Noble's website, and will be available on Amazon and other internet book sellers near you soon. I assume it can also be purchased in book stores occupying physical space (if they order it).

Schmidt Origin and Growth of ReligionIf Wilhelm Schmidt is a new acquaintance to you, let me just mention that he, following up on the work of Andrew Lang (The Making of Religion, 1900), demonstrated that the original religion of human beings was not some primitive notion of spirits or magical forces, but the belief in one personal God to whom we are morally responsible. Other types of religions then emerged as people fell away from worshipping the one God. Wilhelm Schmidt's magnum opus was the twelve-volume Ursprung der Gottesidee. I doubt that it will ever be translated because of its size, and it will not become eligible for public domain for a long time since Schmidt did not die until 1956. He wrote the single-volume Origin and Growth as a handbook for those who needed something more compact for teaching and learning purposes. It is primarily a short history and critique of various theories on the origin of religion and an introduction to the culture-historical method as it contributes to confirming original monotheism. Among his other books in English are

1) Primitive Revelation (St. Louis: Herder, 1939). In contrast to Der Ursprung and Origin and Growth, Schmidt wrote this book from an apologetic point of view, arguing that his ethnological conclusions dovetail with Christian concepts. They do.

2) High Gods in America (Oxford: Clarendon, 1933). In small collection of lectures delivered at Oxford, Schmidt gives us a quick glimpse of how his method worked out in a particular situation, illustrating the original monotheism as it was visible in three Native American tribes.

3) The Culture Historical Method of Ethnology: The Scientific Approach to the Racial Question (New York: Fortuny's, 1939). The subtitle is misleading, at least as we might react to the term “racial question.” The book has nothing to do with analyzing so-called human races, let alone promoting the racial theories that were raging in Germany and other countries at the time. As a good Catholic Christian, Schmidt opposed Hitler's ideas. He was working in Vienna, and when Austria was annexed to the “Third Reich,” he moved, along with the Anthropos Institute that he had founded, to Switzerland. The phrase that comes to my mind in connection with this book is “dry as dust.” It explains the culture-historical method, as first set down in Methode der Ethnologie (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1911) by Fritz Graebner. Unfortunately, despite its rigor, Graebner's book was fairly difficult to follow at points. Still, out of respect for Graebner, Schmidt did not write his own work on methodology until Graebner had passed away. His version is far more extensive and detailed and also responds to some of the critics of the method. Alas! It still takes a huge amount of dedication to work through it. Your humble bloggist would suggest that, before setting out on reading this book, you avail yourself of his pithy summary and edifying examples, as provided in his In the Beginning God.


Finally, let us go back a week and return to the Grand Prix of Alexandria, which I'd been meaning to report about. This was the third year that Smalltown USA held this event, but the first time that I caught on what was actually going on just a couple of blocks from our house. The sanctioning body of this go-kart circuit had laid out a street course in the “downtown” area, and drivers in various classes were competing. On Saturday they held the heat races, and on Sunday the features. The youngest driver in the class designated as “Junior” was seven years old. In most of the other classes they were adults, and their souped-up machines no longer held too much resemblance to their origin as a seat mounted on four wheels powered by a lawn mower engine.

Herewith some pictures:

#21 winner pigtails

This young lady won the Junior division. She showed some
wonderful creativity on her helmet.

Mayor Jack Wood in Go-kartCookie Monster Helmet

First turnEntering Chicane

Collision in the chicane

0 Responses So Far / Comments and Disagreement are Welcome. / Courtesy is Mandatory.

Saturday, August 23rd 2014


The Twin Paradox

  • IN THE BACKDROP: Earlier today: The Grand Prix of Alexandria

Umayyad Mosque on Prayer RugStarted on Thursday, finished text on Thursday, added pictures and posted on Saturday. Wouldn’t you know it? I got an e-mail from Abu Bakr yesterday. Well, not the historical Abu Bakr, the first caliph after Muhammad’s death. Not even the present claimant to the caliphate, who uses Abu Bakr as a part of his street name. It came from someone calling himself Abu Bakr who identified himself as a “rebel leader” in Aleppo, Syria--a strange self-designation. (If I may add a totally irrelevant piece of trivia, someone once gave me a prayer rug that was made in Aleppo.) This otherwise unknown Abu Bakr asserted that he and his second-in-command had absconded with 10 million dollars, which they had discovered in a house owned by Syrian president Basher al-Assad and had smuggled it out of the country with the help of the Red Cross. Really now.…You already know what comes next….Yes, that’s right. He’s supposedly looking for a trustworthy person in whose bank account he and his assistant can store the loot until the outcome of the war. For now, I should tell no one regardless of whether I take up the offer or not since doing so might hurt the rebel’s cause. Right. Its the infamous Nigerian bank transfer con with nothing more than a fresh set of labels. It just cracked me up that the day after I published my entry concerning ISIL and mentioned the two persons known as “Abu Bakr,” I should be getting an e-mail from some unimaginative con artist calling himself by that name.

It’s been storming off and on all day long. We had a power outage for a few hours from mid-morning until early afternoon. Right now, there’s a lot of thunder and lightning as well as cloudburst quantities of rain.

Physics LogoI mentioned the other day that it had been my 65th birthday, and, once again, I want to thank everyone for their congratulations and good wishes. Let me include in that statement also those of my friends, relatives, and acquaintances who meant to do so, but it somehow slipped their mind. That happens to me frequently.

Now, while we’ve brushed on the topic of aging, I should talk about a way in which you can seemingly extend your lifetime beyond your wildest imagination. In doing so, I can also finally bring the series on Christian thought and contemporary physics to an end. (Or, at least to try to do so.) I’m referring, of course, to the well known “twin paradox.” As I mentioned before, once I have all of the entries gathered, I will try to do a serious editing job to turn it all into a reasonably arranged whole.

Let me recall the points made earlier that are relevant to this topic.

a. Einstein’s special theory of relativity is concerned with observers within frames of reference moving at a constant velocity; viz., they are not accelerating in any manner. Please, if necessary, go back to re-read that section because this short summary is not really adequate. Let us say that two observers are moving at the same speed parallel to each other, and they measure their progress as well as that of their colleague. It turns out that each of them will observe that the other one traverses a greater distance in what appears to be the same amount of time; yet they do not pull away from each other. Thus, the velocity and distance are given, and so the only parameter that may have changed is time. Thus each of the two observers infers that the other person’s clock must be moving more slowly than his. After their excursions, when they get together and talk about their observations, they realize that both of them made the same measurements concerning the other.

We may not call this effect an illusion because there is no objective (“absolute”) vantage point to measure what “really” happened. But it is clear that the differences are limited to the data collected by the observers. From their own accounts, they both covered the same distance at the same velocity in the same amount of time. --- Let me add here, just to forestall an imaginary objection that bringing in God as the true point of reference makes no sense. God is neither a point in space nor a measuring tape nor a speedometer.

b. Things change when we switch over to the general theory of relativity. Now we are concerned with frames of reference that are undergoing “acceleration,” which is defined as a change in velocity. “Velocity,” in contrast to “speed” is a vector, which means it measures both the speed of an object and its direction. Thus, an entity can be accelerating in this technical sense by either slowing down, speeding up, or changing directions. An interesting application of this use of the term is that an object, even though it may be moving at a steady speed, can still be constantly accelerating. An example would be an object that travels in a circle; it changes its direction—and, thereby, its acceleration, from one moment to the next without increasing or decreasing its speed. For our purposes, the most important implication is that, in comparison with an inertial frame of reference, the clock of an accelerating object really does slow down. It is not just a matter of perception. When an object is accelerating for a significant duration, time on board moves more slowly than it would at rest or if it were moving at a steady velocity.

Actually, qualifications such as “significant duration” are unnecessary. The phenomena in question presumably occurs universally. However, their impact is negligible and can be disregarded. If I enter a freeway and push down hard on the gas pedal in order to match the speed of flowing traffic, I’m not accelerating fast enough that I need to reset my car’s clock, not even in the Detroit area. Now, please let me try the following summary, which is going to be fairly general. I welcome corrections, illustrations, or refinements. (I would include objections, but I don’t see what there is to object to other than to correct.) Gravity and acceleration are two ways of describing the same phenomenon. Acceleration is manifested by the fact that an object in motion pursues a curved path in the vicinity of other objects. If we define gravity in this operationalist manner, we can get away from two troublesome notions: 1) gravity as a mysterious force emanating from objects and capturing objects of lesser mass, and 2) space as a huge entity manifesting no properties other than being the container in which all other things reside and, more lately, being curved.

An object (call it “A”) moving in the vicinity of an object of greater mass (“B”) will curve in relation to B. If the difference in mass is great and A is moving at a slow speed, they may collide. E.g., the space station falls to earth, or the apple drops from the tree. Under some circumstances, B will assume a continuous curve around A, thereby creating an elliptical orbit, as exemplified by the moon traveling around the earth. In yet other circumstances, B will curve around A, but continue on its path with a slight difference in direction. The third case is illustrated by the curvature of the speed of light coming to us from a distant star, as observed by Sir Arthur Eddington and his colleagues during a solar eclipse, as we mentioned in an earlier entry.

Thus, we understand gravity in this context as the acceleration of an object’s velocity as observed by the curvature in its path. Once it was applied correctly and interpreted carefully, general relativity also explained the observation of an apparent anomaly in the orbit of the planet Mercury.

General relativity was an intellectual “discovery” made by Einstein. It took several years before it was confirmed in the sense that it predicted and explained certain empirical phenomena more satisfactorily than the previous Newtonian paradigm. However, one of the most entertaining methods of verifying this theory has been out of our reach so far, namely, the celebrated “twin paradox.” Unfortunately there is good reason to believe that it does not represent a genuine potential reality. But let’s play with it for a little while.

Kinderheim JuistFor some time, people believed that the twin paradox was entailed by the general theory of relativity. The label derives from the fact that twins could provide a very graphic illustration of the phenomenon, though it would apply to any people. Let me give two examples, both of them are fictional, but the second one, which does not involve twins, is more fictional than the first.

Let’s begin with twins. I think the first twins I ever met were two girls in a children’s home on the East Friesian Isle of Juist in the North Sea when I was around seven or eight years old. Their names, if I remember correctly, were Anita and Roswita, and if one of them is reading this, I hope you had a good life. Once you got to know them and got into sufficiently close proximity, you could easily tell them apart because one of them had a little scar right above the bridge of her nose--if you knew which one had the scar. But these detailed observations were not important to me at that tender age. Furthermore, they did not fit into my short-lived plans of becoming chief of a band of pirates. Come to think of it, none of those details are really all that relevant now, and I had better get back to my topic.

Twin ParadoxThe idea is that, say, Anita went on a trip into outer space while Roswita remained earthbound. Anita’s accelerated environment slowed down her clock, and so she did not age as fast as her sister. Let’s give ourselves an easy even number and assume that, when Anita returned home, she realized that she was twenty years younger than Roswita. Consequently, they were born in the same year (a reasonable assumption for twins in general, and a known fact in the specific case of these women), and theoretically, even with Anita’s excursion into outer space, they could live to be the same age. The situation is paradoxical because, despite being born at the same time and having the same life span they still would die separated by two decades. If we stipulate that they were both born in 1948 and that both will live to be a hundred years old, Roswita will die in 2048, while Anita will live until 2068 because she gained those twenty years during her time in space.

Here’s another example.

Imagine a crew of astronauts leaving earth in 1968 and traveling in space for 20 months. Their trip ends rather abruptly when they crash on a planet that appears to differ in many ways from their home planet. Its ruling forms of life are intelligent apes: gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees. There are human beings, but they are enslaved to the apes and live on a seriously underdeveloped level, culturally, physically, and mentally. I’ll stay away from the details of the story. As events proceed, Col. George Taylor, the only astronaut to have survived the ordeal, realizes that he has actually returned to earth, but the year is now 3978. Less than two years of travel measured on board the space ship covered more than two thousand years on earth. In the meantime, humanity had immolated itself by means of nuclear war, and the cultured, but cruel, apes have replaced them as the ascendant race on earth.

Planet of the ApesUndoubtedly you recognize the sketchy plot outline of the film "Planet of the Apes" (1968), starring Charlton Heston as Col. Taylor. The writers fudged the numbers for the amount of time elapsed, just as I did above, but they went even further. Quite unnecessarily they even provided the astronauts with one of those convenient and fortuitous wormholes, which enabled them to travel faster than the speed of light. Thus, don’t bother looking for an equation that would result in the temporal durations of the story. Nevertheless, one might think that by maintaining a little more plausibility in general, the idea of traveling into the (not-so-remote) future by means of accelerated space travel could be a real possibility. Or so it would appear.

Regardless of its benefit or lack thereof, it is only an appearance. Let me mention two reasons why the twin paradox has lost its popularity:

1. The twin paradox, even if it were a real possibility, would not extend any one’s life. In the film, Colonel Taylor did not actually extend his life span by some two thousand years. He lived exactly how long he lived as measured by his body and physiology; it just so happened that his life had two different segments in two different eras, and, staying with the plot, I imagine that he would have preferred to spend it all in the first one. In terms of practical application, even though the jump into the future would be real, he would not have experienced it in himself. When he returned to earth, he was exactly twenty months older than when he took off.

Similarly, if Anita should live to be a hundred-and-twenty years old rather than one hundred, her longevity would not be due to any hypothetical space flight on her part. That experience would not have given her twenty years’ worth more heartbeats, thoughts, meals, or enjoyable moments. According to the theory, the traveling twin’s experience would not be all that different from the one caused by the international dateline. In Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg “gained one day” in order to win his wager, but only because moving east to west each degree of longitude shortens the time of sunlight by about 4 minutes, which is why we have time zones. On the average, if he crossed 360º in 80 days, he would have gained 4.5º longitude, which amounts to 18 minutes and thus shortened the entire trip by one whole day. But such a measurement does not translate into his having 18 minutes subtracted from his total age.  Nor would I think that he would have been conscious of it on a day-to-day basis, though his body clock should have noticed the accumulated time changes once his day had shifted by several hours, even if the shift had been gradual.

Going into the other direction, I can board a flight to Asia on a Sunday and arrive there on a Tuesday without having experienced more than a fraction of Monday. (Not a bad idea, perhaps.) However, that fact, which is necessary to maintain a meaningful calendar, does not entail that my life will be deprived by the length of a day.

2. Although there is discussion on the topic, today’s consensus holds that the twin paradox is not even a paradox. The general theory of relativity is in no different position concerning this particular theoretical puzzle than the special theory. It is now customarily placed under the heading of the special theory along with the explanation that the principle of equivalence still applies and that the general theory does not actually contribute any difference.

The reason is that any acceleration and its effects in the outward segment of the trip would be canceled out exactly by the equal and opposite acceleration on the way home (call it “deceleration” if you like). It does not matter how long or short the complete journey may be, whether it is entirely linear or contains curves, or even whether trip heads straight out and straight back or the route is laid out in a perfect circle that departs from the earth on a given day at a precise location and meets the earth again exactly a year later in the same location. You'll find quite a few wesites that do the relevant math. I particularly liked a delightful site called "Einsteinlight"; be sure to surf around the animations. If you do so or can follow the given calculations, you wind up with the conclusion that acceleration plays no significant role because it must take away again what it has given. Therefore, this scenario can be placed into the same rubric as other topics within the special theory, it is merely a matter of observations made from two frames of reference in which each sees the other one utilizing a slower clock. When they are together again, they have, indeed, expended an identical amount of time.

I'm just a little disappointed. My old physics book maintained that the twin paradox under general relativity would be a real phenomenon if it could ever be tested out in practice. What from I have seen now, the general opinion has shifted away from that idea. It would have been fun at least for limited time travel.

I’ll need one more installment for some final philosophical pronouncements and possibly for some theological reflections.

8 Responses So Far / Comments and Disagreement are Welcome. / Courtesy is Mandatory.

Sunday, August 17th 2014


Locating ISIL on the map of Islam

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: happy and tired


Sorting Out ISIL

So, it’s my birthday, and I’m looking at 65. How weird! Let me issue a preliminary "thank you" for all the wishes and congratulations that have poured in. Since both sons and their wives were unavoidably engaged in other matters, we’ll do some celebrating tomorrow (Monday) night. In the meantime, how better for me to celebrate my own birthday than by doing what I like to do best! Well, okay, one of the things I like to do best. I won’t play and sing for you, but I’ll try to teach on an important topic.

Most of the information in the first (and longer) part of this entry is discussed in greater detail in chapters 4 & 5 of the second edition of Neighboring Faiths, on my website Groups of Islam, and in various other postings. (E.g., use my internal Google search to find what I wrote concerning "Osama bin Laden.") For that matter, my site on Israel might also come in handy for some issues involved with Islam and the Middle East. On this post I just want to try to show where ISIL fits in with the various groups that claim to be true Muslims and carry out unspeakable actions in the name of this religion. So, please keep that restriction in mind. I’m not trying to give you a history or full description of ISIL. What I’m attempting to do is to locate the group within the ever-flowing chart of Islamic groups.

As the group in question developed, it went through various designations. At this point ISIL and ISIS are the terms of choice by outsiders. ISIS stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, while the other acronym, ISIL means Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The term “Levant" refers to the entire area east of the Mediterranean, including Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, Syria, and Jordan, thus indicating a somewhat higher degree of ambition by the group. Nevertheless, in light of their intention, which is nothing short of global, the mention of a few countries in the label is hardly terribly relevant.

Please keep in mind that most complex enscripturated religions expect to be the only religion at the end of time; therefore, global ambitions per se should not be considered unusual or the mark of an invidious religion. However, there are important differences in the means of getting there. Spreading a faith by works of mercy, verbal proselytization, or the direct action of God is not the same as conquering the planet for your religion by physical warfare. If you’re familiar with my previous writings on the subject, you already know that, various protestations notwithstanding, some Islamic groups subscribe to the latter method.

Let me give you the big-picture outline on divisions within Islam. Much of the early material is a repeat of what I’ve written before, but we need to make sure that we have the right categories in place. At that, I cannot do much more here than follow one particular line of development. On the basis of the information I have read, it appears that ISIL does not entirely dovetail with any existing group, but combines elements of several previous ones. As always, we need to go back in history.

The biggest division within Islam is, of course, the split between Sunna and Shi’a, which began right after Muhammad’s death. Who, among those who had been his Companions (an honorific title as well as a descriptive noun) would lead the new community (al-ummah) established by the prophet? Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali ben Talib, not only seemed to have the inside edge, but also claimed to have received Muhammad’s designation and his spiritual powers. Nevertheless, the consensus (Sunna) went with Abu Bakr, the father of Aïsha, Muhammad’s young and spirited wife. The rulers of the Islamic world became known as the “caliphs." Thus we have the have the majority, the Sunna, represented by Abu Bakr, and the “dividing party," the Shi’a, associated with Ali. The first three caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman arose out of the Sunna. Ali finally became the fourth caliph, but by that time the division between Sunna and Shi’a was already unalterably headed towards mutual bloodshed.

Several matters complicated the disputes. One was the involvement of the aforementioned Aïsha, who held a strong antipathy to Uthman and even commanded a military action, the “Battle of the Camel," against Ali and his troops. She and her followers lost. Eventually she was escorted to Medina, where she spent the rest of her life teaching Muhammad’s message and writing down memories of her husband, which became a significant part of the traditions compiled as the hadith.

The other important factor had to do with the caliph’s tribal affiliation. Uthman came from a strong clan within the Quraish tribe, the Umayyads, while Muhammad hailed from its Hashimite segment. The Umayyads initially had been among the slowest groups to accept Muhammad’s teachings, but since they had been political leaders in Mecca before the change, it was not surprising that they would emerge again in the contest for leadership among early Muslims. I said above that Ali was accepted as the fourth caliph, but his appointment was rather controversial. Uthman had belonged to the Umayyad clan, and after his death a clan leader named Muawiyah claimed that the right to the caliphate belonged exclusively to the Umayyads. Ali and Muawiyah each commanded armies against each other, and I must refer you to the above sources for more details.

So the big question was, "Should the caliphate belong to someone who was highly regarded in a particular tribe or to a descendant of the prophet?" A third group, called the Kharijites (“Dissenters") emerged with the message that neither criterion was true to Islam. They observed that it had hardly been a bare thirty years after Muhammad’s death, and already the people had lost their way. The truest and purest of all Muslims should be the one chosen to be caliph, even if he had been nothing more than a slave boy. Descent or social standing should have nothing to do with the selection. The fact that such poor criteria were being used to designate the caliph, appeared to the Kharijites to be a clear indication of apostasy.

The Kharijites asserted that the present generation of supposed Muslims had already fallen back into the ignorance and darkness of the time before Muhammad (the jahiliyyah). If so, these lapsed Muslims were considered to be worse than unbelievers and potentially subject to execution. It’s important to recognize that the Kharijites did not think of themselves as either Sunni or Shi’ite.

As a distinct group the Kharijites did not last very long, but neo-Kharijite movements have popped up again and again during the history of Islam. In the meantime, the Shi’a went its own way, splitting up into further subgroups from time to time. Their largest contingent, called "Imamites" or "Twelvers," has constituted the majority population of both Iran and Iraq, though the area that we now call Iraq has been governed by Sunnis for almost all its time under Islam (the Umayyad dynasty followed by the Abbasids, the Selkuk Turks, the Ottoman Turks, the Hashimites, and the B’ath party of Saddam Hussein).

Even though the Sunna did not fractionalize as much as the Shi’a, naturally there were differences of opinion. A movement towards greater intellectual inquiry inspired by converts from Greek-inspired cultures, the Mu’tazilites, was suppressed by the more conservative followers of Abū al-Hasan al-Ash'arī (874–936), referred to as Ash'arites. The Sunna recognizes four schools of legal interpretation (Shari’a): the Hanifites, Shafi'ites, Malikites, and Hanbalites. The last-mentioned, founded by Ahmad bin Hanbal (780-855), is the strictest of the four, attempting to stay as close to a literal reading of the Qur’an as possible and adjudicating possible ambiguities by using as much as possible only hadiths that go back to the Companions of Muhammad.

Further developments within Islam went into the direction of mysticism (i.e. Sufism), as well as adaptations to folk religion and superstitions. One response to these alleged deviations came from Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab (1703-1792), who initiated a significant reform movement in what is now known as Saudi Arabia. When Arabia came under Saudi rule in the early twentieth century, “Wahhabism" became mandatory, and anyone who did not comply with its teachings was liable to be executed. It is a rather rigid form of Islam, forbidding anything that could be interpreted as idolatry (shirk), such as the veneration of Muslim saints or their gravesites, not even making an exception for the burial site of Muhammad in Medina.

Although Wahhabite Islam does not tolerate other religions very well in the lands where it has been adopted, it has its primary reason for existence within Islam itself as a movement towards the purification of the religion. In addition to Saudi Arabia, the two other countries in which it has made its home are the United Arab Emirate and Afghanistan, where the Taliban forced Wahhabite interpretations of the Qur’an on the people for a time (and would like to do so again). But there is no caliphate in Wahhabism. The kings of Saudi Arabia claim to have a divine mandate to rule, but they do not refer to themselves as caliphs.

One of the crucial tenets of Wahhabism is that no Muslim should follow human teachers in their beliefs and practices. Consequently, they do not care for the label “Wahhabite" and prefer to be called Salafis, which means that they follow the pattern set by Islam under the first three Caliphs. Even though it is pretty clear to the outside observer that they fall into the Hanbalite and Ash’arite patterns, they reject both designations because those labels are connected to human leaders. However, the term “Salafi" may create some ambiguity as well, and we need to return to it.

Even though Osama bin Laden (1957-2011), the eventual leader of al-Qaeda, grew up in Saudi Arabia under Wahhabite teaching, he eventually turned into a different, far more radical direction, inspired by the writings of Seyyid Qutb (1906-1966). Qutbism and its philosophical allies deny the legitimacy of any human government (including a caliphate) and look for a totally Islamic world, which will be governed by Shari’a alone. According to them, not only non-Islamic countries, but all Muslim countries that are governed by human beings (and they all are without exception) are in the state of jahiliyyah (darkness and ignorance). The Saudi government is not only included in that judgment, but was singled out by Osama over and over again as a case in point of such apostasy.

Seyyid QutbOnce again, I urge my readers to read the book Milestones by Seyyid Qutb. I mean, I’m happy if you take my word for the summary, but Qutb’s ideas have an even greater impact if you read them in his own words from his own pen (though admittedly most likely in translation).

The Qur’an teaches that Islam should not be propagated by the sword (Sura 2:256). People should be able to come to a free decision of the truth. Consequently, many Muslim apologists today go to extraordinary lengths to explain away the various aggressive wars fought by Muslims ever since its birth. For our purposes right now, this issue is irrelevant because al-Qaeda and other followers of Seyyid Qutb not only acknowledge that there have been Muslim wars of aggression, but advocate that they must be resumed.

Qutbites agree that one should only become a Muslim by free choice when one recognizes the truth, but declare that people today do not have true freedom to make such a choice since they are “enslaved" to human governments. Thus, the primary item of their present agenda is to abolish governments, both those of non-Muslims and of the multitude of pseudo-Muslims who live within the recrudescence of jahiliyyah. In order to make a truly free choice concerning Islam, people need to live in a truly Islamic environment.

Let me repeat a point that I’ve made several times in various places in order to illustrate this idea. It has been stated multiple times that al-Qaeda’s attack on the twin towers on 9/11/2001 was irrational because it not only killed non-Muslims, but Muslims as well. This particular inconsistency vanishes under the Qutbite paradigm because any Muslim working in the twin towers would surely be in the state of jahiliyyah, and, thus, be subject to destruction just as much as any other infidel. Anyone who is not a Muslim in accord with these principles is a hypocrite, and the Qur’an destines hypocrites to a worse fate than unbelievers. Sura 4:145: “The Hypocrites will be in the lowest depths of the Fire: no helper will you find for them; -“

And now to ISIL. As announced I will not give a history of this organization (except in the sketchiest terms), nor go into all of their present machinations in detail. In my opinion, the Wikipedia site grants a stronger link between this group and Wahhabism than is warranted, but does an adequate job of providing more information than I need to go into here.

ISIL is not Wahhabi, though there are many similarities. It promotes a “pure" kind of Islam. It identifies itself as Salafi and stresses the importance of tawhid, the oneness of God and the worship of him alone. Any practice that could be deemed to be shirk (idolatry) must be eliminated. But none of these matters require any link to Wahhabism other than a conceptual one. However, by considering itself a government in and of itself and by engaging in aggressive warfare in order to expand its boundaries, killing Muslims as well as non-Muslims, it goes beyond Wahhabi ideology. And, for that matter, so does the genocide of non-Muslims, which includes women and children and some of the worst tortures invented by monsters disguised as humans.

Nor is ISIL Qutbite. The movement did arise out of al-Qaeda with its underlying Qutbite ideology, and it definitely shares Qutbite radicalism in designating all other Muslims to be in a state of jahiliyyah and, thus, making them legitimate targets of aggressive war. Its particular emphasis in that respect has been on fighting against what they are calling “Shi'ite oppression." This notion would be laughable if it were not accompanied by such inhumane violence and brutality. It is true that since the American involvement in Iraqi politics the Shi’ites have had a greater amount of authority in Iraq than in most of Iraq’s history. However, Shi’ites do represent a majority of Iraq’s population, and, as I stated above, they have lived almost perpetually under Sunni governments. ISIL considers itself as neither Sunni nor Shi’ite, just as was the case for the Kharijites in the seventh century, but their main victims within Islam are the Shi’ites. Outside of Islam, it appears that any one else is fair game for persecution.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Caliph IbrahimMost significantly, in contrast to both Wahhabism and Qutbism, ISIL has resurrected the position of caliph. Thus, at this moment, they occupy a unique slot. Once again consulting history, after the initial skirmishes, the Umayyad dynasty held the caliphate until it was replaced by the Abbasids in 750. The only territory to which the Umayyads held on was Iberia, and they continued to designate their leaders as caliphs. Thus there was the truly powerful Caliph of Baghdad and the vestigial Caliph of Cordoba. The Abbasids eventually lost power, and in the eleventh century, the strongest caliphate was held by the Shi’ite Fatimid dynasty in Egypt. Thus, there were now three caliphs, the Caliphs of Baghdad and Cordoba—both of them dysfunctional—and the Caliph of Cairo. After the Ottoman Empire had consolidated the Muslim world under its rule, the Sultan also bore the title of “Caliph." The revolution by the “young Turks" in 1922 (that’s where the term originated) ended that practice, and, after several failed attempts to sustain the position in some way both inside and outside of Turkey, since 1924 there has no longer been a caliph.

ISIL has now attempted to revive the caliphate. Its present leader goes by several names and titles, and I will only touch on a few highlights. Born as Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, he is the Emir (“prince" or “ruler") of ISIL. His popular name has been Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and you will immediately recognize the importance of “Abu Bakr" in that construction. Lately he has added “al Qurashi" to his title, implying descent from the prophet, who, you remember, was of the Quraish tribe. The shortest version with which one can refer to him is “Caliph Ibrahim."

ISIL displays all of the worst traits associated with the stereotypes of Islam, and in a world where it seems to be impolite to call an evil person "evil," surely this organization and its leader deserve that appellation. The U.S. has taken the lead in attempting to put an end to the travesties of ISIL. I’m not fond of the idea of the U.S. being the policeman of the world, but such a horror cannot be allowed to go on unimpeded. Some European countries have now joined the American effort, and the new Iraqi government is attempting to put an end to ISIL. Perhaps together they will succeed. Also, other Muslim countries have denounced ISIL.

And that last remark once again brings me to a rhetorical question that I have repeated several times. Why are the so-called moderate Muslim nations not playing a more active part of the war against ISIL? For Muslims to sit on their hands while they make frowny faces and verbally dissociate themselves from ISIL is simply not enough. If Islamic countries want to be taken seriously by the outside world, they need to earn that respect by neutralizing those groups that clearly violate the standards of Islam.

Perhaps Western-style democracy is not yet appropriate for some countries where tribalism is too deeply ingrained; simply imposing it seems to backfire in many cases, though I wish it weren’t so. But even an absolute ruler can and should abide by the Qur’an if he is a true Muslim. “There should be no compulsion in religion" (2:256). “People of the Book" (e.g., Christians and Jews) must pay the unbeliever’s tax (jizya) and occupy a lower standing in society than Muslims, but they should be allowed to live and worship God in their own way (9:29). (And, please, there is no way in which one can plausibly rationalize, let alone justify, Caliph Ibrahim’s and ISIL’s actions as a consequence of the Crusades. Unfortunately, if you’ve had conversations with Muslim apologists, you might not be surprised if someone at this very moment is attempting to do just that. )

Muslim leaders, if you want us to see any credibility in your claims concerning Islam, please join actively in the effort to put ISIL out of business!

0 Responses So Far / Comments and Disagreement are Welcome. / Courtesy is Mandatory.

Wednesday, August 13th 2014


Keeping Vigil in a Hospital Room

  • IN THE BACKDROP: A CD with instrumental hymn arrangements

Monday, 8-11: Beryl J. AndersonI’m going to start a blog entry; we’ll see how far I actually get with it. June and I are in the greater Detroit area of Michigan, which immediately raises the question of what “greater" means when applied to Detroit and surroundings. But I digress already, and this is only the beginning of the post.

June’s mom, known as “G’ma" even to people who weren’t related to her, had a stroke last week. By Thursday morning it became clear that she would not recover, and so we drove up to be at her bedside and to support Kris insofar as it has been possible. One of their brothers also lives in this area; the other two flew in from out-of-state, but had to return after the weekend. Things are going slower than expected. We’re planning to be here for the duration. Kris continues to bear the greatest burden, but hopefully we’re making some contribution.

Spending the day in a hospital visitor’s chair is obviously a little wearying, but it’s not been boring. This has been the first time in many years that all five of the siblings (June, Kris, Greg, Barry, Jonathan, and Kris) have been together. The nurses on the station have expressed a bit of surprise; they are used to arguments and fights breaking out when so many family members (and in our case additionally 2 spouses and even one ex-spouse) are all together in one hospital room, but the Lord has provided harmony and mutual support. There was some good honest sharing and a lot of reminiscing. If I may put my tongue in mouth for a moment, in the meantime, G’ma is as stubborn in dying as she was in living. Finally she is actually sleeping, and—even though she is not particularly communicative any more—conveys a spirit of peace.

When I said above that the Lord provided harmony, I can add that we attempted to do so as well. G’ma always loved music; she was a member of a professional trio for a time. In the opinion of your ever-humble bloggist, she always appreciated my musical effort. I have my guitar along on this trip, and we spent much of yesterday (Sunday) afternoon singing hymns and folk standards of the 60s. The nurses insisted the music was beautiful (and I’m sure it clearly was), they also allowed that is was neither too loud nor disrupting (how could it have been?). In any event, we had a joyous time. We have no idea how much of it G’ma heard or appreciated, but the little signs we saw, or at least pretended to see, seemed to indicate that she responded positively to it.

June and I never even unpacked from our trip to Brown County in southern Indiana. We came home on Wednesday, June washed one load of clothes, stuffed a few other fresh items into our duffel bags, and took off for Michigan on Thursday. We stayed in a motel up until today, but, since it’s taking longer than we had budgeted, we’re relocating to Kris and Tom’s tonight.

Old Shatterhand One would think that this time away from other distractions would provide a good opportunity for me to try to get caught up on various projects that only require a computer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Even though it’s not like anything specific is hammering away at me, still the whole situation per se does not lend itself to producing concentrated thought that’s worth a whole lot.


I did say in the last entry that in the next one you would get to see a picture of your equestrian bloggist on horseback. This happens to be that entry, and, even though Brown County is far from the top of my mind at the moment, I will fulfill the promise. Here I am sitting on top of “Whiskey," whose job apparently is to be bring up the back of the row of riders, and both times I got to share the job with him. He is a very well-tempered and responsive horse. I think the two people in charge may have overestimated my riding experience, but I like to think that I didn’t disappoint them in terms of skill. I have to clarify that I needed help getting up into the saddle due to a little inflexibility thanks to the PD, but, once up in the saddle, I felt totally comfortable and—forgive me for mentioning the obvious—suddenly transformed into Old Shatterhand. June thought horseback riding was very good for me and thinks I should look for more opportunities to. Excellent idea.

As I reflected on the horseback riding, I realized that the last time I had ridden any kind of animal was probably when I was on a camel during a visit to Jerusalem. That ride was not nearly as comfortable, and I shall not provide any picture.

Trail Guide in Brown CountyI’ll leave this entry at that. In the near future, when my brain is more inclined to consider other matters, I intend to provide some commentary on events in the Middle East, but that shall have to way.

For now, I need to be done. Please continue to pray for us and, more particularly for Kris and Tom. A couple of hours ago Kris ran into some seriously aggravating bureaucratic issues, and there are so only so many straws that a woman can bear.

Tuesday, 8-12: No dramatic changes. June and I transferred to Tom and Kris's house. I have felt pretty crummy for the last day and a half, though obviously seeing G'ma provides immediate perspective. Just added the pictures to this entry.

Wednesday, 8-13: Still maintaining the vigil. G'ma is proceeding to the heavenly city, but at her own pace. I shall finally post this entry.

0 Responses So Far / Comments and Disagreement are Welcome. / Courtesy is Mandatory.

Tuesday, August 5th 2014


Venn Diagrams

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: having fun

Just a couple of days left here in southern Indiana.

This will be a "mostly pictures" entry with a few personal comments--and maybe something profound on the off-chance that anything will come to mind. I knew from the beginning that I wouldn't be able to keep from working on some project, so I'm remaking the pictures of the presentation on Kisa Gotami that I gave at ISCA in April and was going to turn into a video. I lost all of that material when my computer crashed in May.

On second thought, forget all that, I got too carried away by the topic of Venn diagrams, so I'll save the pictures for some other entry. As I keep saying, even I don't always know what winds up getting posted on this rather mercurial blog before I'm done.

I see on Google's homepage that today is John Venn's 180th birthday, and I feel driven to make a quick comment in connection with that fact. John Venn (1834–1923) was the creator of what we all know as "Venn Diagrams." Google has a pretty nifty display, and I don't want to take the fun out of it. However, it gives me a chance to address a common mistake, which Google's diagram also appears to include. Specifically, it represents Venn diagrams from an "existential" point of view, viz., it makes the assumption that the items represented by both circles exist and that, consequently, there are items to be found in the area where the two circles overlap. In Google's amusing examples, they all do, and that's just fine. But from the standpoint of modern logic, that's an unwarranted assumption because, after all, logic does not so much describe reality as seek to reduce it to the purest possible set of symbols.

Well, those were probably two of the more obtuse sentences that you'll read all week, so let me clarify.

The idea of representing classes or categories (modern "sets") with circles is pretty intuitive. One of the ten (or fewer) greatest mathematicians of history, Leonhard Euler (1708–1783), formalized a method for doing so, though you wouldn't think that it would take a genius to come up with this approach. It's rather simple, though you can make it do far more complex tricks than I will in the following example.

Take a sentence such as

1) All owls are carnivores.

In the traditional syllogism, this sentence is classified as an A sentence, after the Latin affirmo ("I affirm"). It is a universal ("all") affirmative ("are") proposition, and I will limit myself to those tonight. You can illustrate the sentence by first of all drawing a circle in which all carnivores in the universe reside. You imagine that lions, leopards, sharks, and anything or anyone else that eats meat lives there.

Then you can add another circle inside of the carnivore circle, which is the dwelling place of all owls.

So, the obvious conclusion is illustrated: Here are all of the carnivores, and there are all owls contained within the set of carnivores. We can call these circles "Euler diagrams." By simple inference we know that there are no owls that are not in both the owl circle and in the carnivore circle.

This diagram falls into line with the way in which universal sentences were understood until the nineteenth century. The assumption was implicitly made that carnivores and owls exist. So, sentence 1) could be transformed into

2) There are owls, and they are all carnivores.

In other words, this A sentences can be dissolved into a conjunction of two statements asserting existence.

Now, there are philosophers who contend that the syllogism and its universal sentences, such as the above, should still be understood in this way. We can discuss that question another time. It's an interesting issue that involves Aristotelian realism, but we'll leave it to the side tonight. For my purposes here, all I'm interested in is to clarify the change in logical relationships that arose in the 19th century, and how John Venn's diagrams fit into that innovation.

One of the leading mathematicians and logicians of the nineteenth century was Augustus DeMorgan (1806-1871). He came up with numerous insights, among which his "theorem" (viz. "DeMorgan's Law") is only one of his smaller achievements. (See the bottom of this post.) Also among his contributions is his different way of looking at universal sentences. Let's go back to our first sentence:

1) All owls are carnivores.

We said that traditionally it was understood to imply that owls and carnivores exist and that the former is a subset of the latter. But what if the sentence is

1') All who leap tall buildings in single bounds are superheroes.

Well, we don't know whether there are any people with that kind of jumping ability, and we also don't know whether there are any real superheroes. (I mean, I'm pretty sure there aren't, which makes this example even weirder, so just go along with me.) Perhaps these are only imaginary beings. DeMorgan's innovation with regard to universal propositions was to interpret them as hypothetical statements. So, rather than transforming sentence 1) into sentence 2):

2) There are owls and they are all carnivores,

we should read it as:

2') If there are owls, then they are carnivores.

Now, we all know that Venn diagrams are not about circles-within-circles, but rather about intersections of circles. So, let's begin this time by drawing a circle that contains all owls. For Venn diagrams the order in which you draw your circles is irrelevant.

Then we add a second circle of the same size, which holds all carnivores.

The two circles have an area of overlap, which could house any possible owls that are carnivores. To make the diagram strictly accurate, we should enclose it in a rectangle. In the area outside of the circle you will find all entities that are neither owls nor carnivores, such as a bicycle tire, a gold finch, or the sound of one hand clapping.

The important question is, of course, how we should indicate our A sentence, "All owls are carnivores," on the diagram. The temptation is to highlight the area of intersection and say that it is here that all owls live. The larger part of the owl-circle is empty. That judgment may be correct, but it is based on the assumption that there are owls. DeMorgan's innovation keeps us from having to make that assumption, and logicians like to make as few assumptions as possible. To be true, the universal statement in the traditional interpretation is conditional on there being owls.

Of course, in the case of owls, if we step out of the logician's pristine environment, we know that some owls really do exist. So, we can we can confidently back off from a universal A sentence, write a more modest particular I sentence, and diagram it in this way

3) Some owls are carnivores.

However, universal statements are touchy, as we said. John Venn's contribution with his diagrams was that he devised a way of accommodating DeMorgan's perspective. He argued that, instead of stating that all owls are in the intersection area, it is better to go with DeMorgan's hypothetical point of view and say that, if there are owls, then we know at least this much: They will not be in the area that represents owls which are not carnivores. So, we should not mark what only hypothetically exists in the overlap, but we should shade out the area that shows what categorically does not exist. There are no owls that are not carnivores.

You may not find the distinction terribly significant, but it became crucial for the ongoing progress in logical analysis. And, thus, if for no other reason than historical accuracy, it is important to maintain the distinction between Venn diagrams and Euler circles.


In case you're interested, DeMorgan's theorem states the equivalence between certain negations of conjunctions ("both-and") and disjunctions ("either-or").

Either I will not drink coffee or I will not sleep.

~D v ~S

is equivalent to:

It is not the case that I will both drink coffee and sleep.

~(D & S)

It also works the other way around.

I am not a centaur and I am not a griffin.

     ~C & ~G

is equivalent to:

It is not the case that I am either a centaur or a griffin.

~(C v G)

What I would consider to be one of DeMorgan's "big" contributions is the formalization of the method of mathematical induction. Let me try to summarize it.

If a specific integer a has a certain property, and it is the case that: if a hypothetical integer n has that property then its successor n+1 will also have that property, then any integer x has the property in question.

There is a counterpart to mathematical induction in logic, but I'll wait until you got this one to tell you about that one. 

Pictures of your bloggist on horseback next time!

1 Responses So Far / Comments and Disagreement are Welcome. / Courtesy is Mandatory.

Thursday, July 31st 2014


The Historic Christian Faith, Conclusion


Racoon at Bird FeederGreetings from southern Indiana! Actually, June and I had wanted to take a much further trip, but things happened, and so we decided that we were better off trying to get some actual relaxation, and so here we are here at one of our favorite escapes in the part of Indiana that actually has hills, or, if you want to be more accurate, big holes so that the surrounding landscape looks like hills.

We’re having a good time, but I have decided to swear off fishing for the near future. The man with Parkinson’s should simply not try to thread his own hook. After puncturing my hands to the point that they looked like stigmata, getting entangled in miles and miles of fishing line, and eventually sliding down a muddy bank into a muddy creek, I decided that, at this point, the fishing life is not for me. It never really has been, except for one weekend each year, quite a while back, when Seth and I would go camping and fishing, and then we did have a lot of fun with it. So, I just thought it would be an interesting thing to revive, and so it was, I guess, but “interesting" is not synonymous with “fun."

By the way, whatever happened to good old fishing reels? It used to be that they were big spools of fishing line with an attached crank, and that was all there was to them, pretty much. You would attach a weight, hook, and bait to the accessible end of the line, and cast it. If it looked like your cast was going too far, you would stop it by putting your thumb on the reel. Then you set your crank and waited for some unfortunate cat fish to get caught trying to snack on your worm as it was exploring the nether regions of the ooze. You’d crank your line back in, unhook the surprised fish, and send it off swimming again, no doubt to tell its family about the crazy afternoon it had. Nowadays it seems that all the reels are high-tech pieces of equipment, and I discovered a multitude of things I could do with them—except to get off a decent cast and reel it back in.

As mentioned, the attempt to revive the relaxed pastime of fishing ended with a descent down a muddy embankment into an equally muddy creek. Sadly, my cell phone was along for the plunge, and it was not amused. For the moment it is resting inside of a bag of rice, based on the suggestion that several of you have made previously for similar occasions. We’ll hope that it works. In the meantime please know that for the moment my cell phone will not constitute a successful instrument to communicate with me.


racoonEven though this is supposed to be “time away," I can’t help ruminate on philosophical and theological matters, and I think that I want to bring the series on “the historic Christian faith" to a close — at least for now. As always, I’ll stay with it if there are good questions on the topic. This entry is going to be another fairly large stack, having to do with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and the nature of the Chicago Statement.

I have made the point that Protestants, in considering the traditions of the church and the statements issued by councils, accept them as potentially very helpful ways of coming to terms with doctrines based on the Bible, but they do not consider them to be of equal authority with the Bible. On the other hand, this approach doesn’t entail that they are merely suggestions that can be ignored at a whim if one should be so inclined because, as I have stated, they are unparalleled ways of structuring the doctrines in question. Not to consider them is not an indication of freedom, let alone creativity, but an indication of ignorance or sloth.

Of course, once an organization has established certain creeds or doctrines as requirements for membership, they are binding for those who want to be a part of it. Else, there would probably be not much of a point in having the organization. This assertion is not theological in nature; it just has to do with one’s commitment and with one’s sincerity in honoring the commitments one has made to a certain group. So, for example, if I were to join a Reformed Church, and their requirement would include accepting the Heidelberg Confession and the Canons of Dort, then I should subscribe to them, and if I didn’t, I should neither join up, or, if I changed my mind later, remain I should not remain within the group. (I was going to ask rhetorically whether any group would ever pass a declaration that pronounced, “On the whole, we’re not sure about this"? But, come to think of it, the fifth article of the Remonstrance reads that way, which has no bearing, of course, on its truth or falsehood). These considerations apply to both Church and para-Church organizations. Church groups are under a little bit more pressure because, after all, most of them contend that they represent true biblical Christianity. Para-church organizations, even though an arm of the church, have more freedom to establish their statements of faith because they will be geared to fit their calling (and perhaps the comfort of participating individuals).

Which brings us to ICBI, ETS, and ISCA. The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) was formed by a group of theologians and pastors in order to restore to prominence what they perceived to be the proper understanding of the nature of the Bible. Please understand here, that the word “council" in this context refers to a relatively small group of self-selected evangelical leaders, such as J.I. Packer, Norman L. Geisler, Gleason Archer, James Boyce, etc., and that they agreed that after accomplishing what they were trying to do, they would dissolve themselves—as they did. As a rookie, so to speak, I was not on the council, but I was there for the first two “summits" as participant and signatory.) The group was not ecumenical, and it did not intend to be so. From the beginning, it had a very specific agenda, namely, to promote a clear understanding of the inspiration of the Bible and its entailment of inerrancy.

One of the things that they did in order to further that end was to hold larger “summit" meetings that would come up with a lengthy statement expounding on the doctrine. It was not intended to be a large-scale forum for debate where fundamentalists, evangelicals, neo-orthodox, modernists, and so forth would get together and hammer out their differences in order to arrive at a nothing-burger statement, which would be mutually acceptable to all of them. The intent right from the beginning was to defend the view that was held by people who had a commitment to biblical inerrancy and to deny positions that were incompatible with it. Of course, there is (and should be) an ongoing dialogue with other Christian traditions, but this was not one of them. The official statement was intended to say, “Okay, we represent this view of the Bible and biblical inerrancy, which we believe is the correct one; this is what we mean by it." In the future evangelical Christians could then consult this document stating what this group of evangelicals leaders, both scholars and pastors, defined as the best understanding of “biblical inerrancy." It could not be binding on any person or any organization except by choice.

CardinalAt the first summit in 1978, the council invited a larger number of representatives from the evangelical community who would be in sympathy with their goals. Your bloggist had the privilege of being present at this, the first of three “summits." I was still definitely feeling like a rookie, probably because I was, as I was mingling among these evangelical leaders (“those who seemed to be ‘pillars,’"). This larger group had no more ecclesiastical authority than the small core; it cannot even be defined as a “Council" in the same sense as Nicaea or Chalcedon, and the ICBI statement made that point right from the beginning. Leaders of some denominations were present, but their attendance and later implementations in their denominations, if any, was up to them and their churches. We spent several days listening to different people address various aspects of the topic of inerrancy and working on refining it. At the outset of the meeting, a prepared statement was circulated, to which everyone, in large and small groups, could make comments and suggest changes. (By the way, this is the method that other large groups also have used, for example Vatican II or the World’s Parliament of Religions; what comes out in the end is often very different from the original draft.)

The result was the celebrated “Chicago Statement," though I, for one, had no idea at how “celebrated" it would eventually become; viz. I wasn’t sure how many people would actually pay any attention to it. Having been present at the meeting, I can vouch for the fact that we did not see ourselves as bishops or prelates but as evangelicals who were working together on an important matter. I remember somebody remarking somewhere along the line, perhaps in an elevator, that if the folks who put together the Westminster Confession were called the “Westminster Divines," we should be called the “Chicago Divines." But that was meant as a joke. We were serious, but not sanctimonious. I suspect that the folks at Vatican II, despite the necessary glorious self-references in the documents, felt the same way.

Obviously, the statements should not and cannot be interpreted as de fide, nor would the council even have dreamed of coming up with anathemas. How could a consultation of this sort, which was not a church, anathematize anyone? The statements of denial are simply statements of “that’s not what we mean." They were indictments of ideas as false in the light of our conviction of truth. In fact, we stressed in the discussions, as well as made a point in the document, that people who did not accept the statement were not, ipso facto, non-Christians. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of negative feedback from those who did not share our understanding on Scripture because a) they were not consulted; and b) they did not get to write the rules, c) the standards were published even though they disagreed with them, and d) they didn't like anything evangelicals did.

The council was very much aware of the potential gap between believing that what the Bible says as true and trustworthy and understanding its content. Thus, a few years after the first large meeting, they held Summit II (1982), which specifically dealt with hermeneutics, the theory of how to understand a text, or, more specifically in this case, the text of the Bible. Once again, papers were read, debated, and discussed. At times the conversation got just a little heated. The outcome was another statement, again including affirmations and denials, on the consensus that could be established on hermeneutics among those who subscribed to biblical inerrancy. Once again, your bloggist had the privilege of being there, presenting a paper, and participating in the discussion. Seriously, I am pleased that I was invited and was allowed to be a part of something that turned out to be far more significant than I had imagined at the time.

Fast-forward to the twenty years or so, to the time when the Evangelical Theological Society was debating the topic of “open theism." The society had only two points of doctrine in their statement of faith, namely, a commitment to the inerrancy of the 66 books of the biblical canon and a statement affirming the Trinity. For a while, already prior to the discussion on open theism (the belief that God has chosen not to know the future), some people had raised questioned how exactly inerrancy should be interpreted. Others told me that they felt free to sign the statement affirming inerrancy while giving themselves quite a bit of latitude in how they understood the term. I remember a brief discussion with a seminary teacher who quipped that, well, he was signing the statement every year, but he was pretty sure that what he meant by “inerrancy" was most likely not what most other members of the society meant by the term. Most everyone around the table chuckled at this juvenile “school-boy-defies-headmaster" attitude. It was not a good moment for me to bring up the topic of personal integrity, let alone the not-so-revolutionary idea that, rightly interpreted, the Bible is, in fact, true in all that it affirms. I doubt that this professor allowed his students to cheat on his exams, but he was cheating them.

Now, I like to think that maybe I may have had a teensy-weensy little part in what ensued. The context of the discussion at ETS in the early 2000’s was the debate on “open theism." The main question came down to whether two members who held to the view of “open theism" could remain a part of the society. Underneath that matter was a theological issue, namely, whether open theism, according to which God does not know the future, is compatible with biblical inerrancy. One of the difficulties is that one cannot reconcile a God who is less than omniscient with predictive prophecies, those that have already been fulfilled and those that are still outstanding.

During that debate, one of the gentlemen whose membership was in question declared that the idea of biblical inerrancy was so ambiguous or vague that it really could not provide a solid standard against which we could measure the correctness of what he was teaching and writing. His own statement to that effect was followed up by other people chiming in that they, too, were really confused about the meaning of biblical inerrancy. I availed myself of the opportunity of making a speech of no longer than five minutes (though I’m sure I did not even take that long), which I concluded by asking: “If you’re not clear on the meaning of ’inerrancy,’ what in the world are you signing every year?" There was a little bit of giggling and just a smattering of applause, which the president of the society immediately gaveled down. Bill Craig, who was sitting right next to me, grinned as he complimented me on my “little rhetorical flourish," though I'm pretty sure I didn't change his mind on the larger subject.

So, since the meaning of inerrancy had been raised within ETS, it received official action. I’m don't know precisely what the ensuing process was because right about then I stopped attending ETS for various unrelated reasons. I do know this: the society responded to the criticism that the idea of “inerrancy" was too vague, and that it needed to spell out in more rigorous terms exactly what should be entailed by it. And so it did. The society voted that the operative more precise understanding was the Chicago Statement. Thus, theoretically, the alleged ambiguity should have been resolved. (I believe, though, that a number of people who had claimed to be befuddled by the term a few years ago are now complaining that it is too restricted and narrow, and that, consequently, it is legitimate for them to circumvent it.)

Nobody (to my knowledge) is making any claim that the Chicago Statement has been divinely revealed, that it is inspired, that it bears intrinsic authority, or anything else that one may associate with creedal statements in some churches. Nevertheless, it did become the official reference point for the Evangelical Theological Society, who as I said, is not a church nor claims to be an arbiter over the Church. Now, I must add, lest I create a wrong impression, that I don’t think that the Chicago Statement was totally arbitrary or just an opinion, or that anybody else’s formulation would be just as good as that one. Just as with the Nicaean and Chalcedonian creeds did with their topics (though on a different scale), I think that it expressed the meaning of biblical inerrancy in a very solid and rigorous way, one which can easily withstand the opposition to inerrancy by self-appointed judges who believe that it is wrong for a group to establish membership criteria that excludes them.

Now, most of the foregoing was, as I said, yet another stack. So, let’s pop back to where we’re supposed to be and remember that our main issue here is neither the question of inerrancy per se nor the question of any one particular person’s stand on the issue of biblical authority. My point is the nature of the Chicago Statement, and how it is useable for the church in general. It is an affirmation that anyone who takes the inspiration of the Bible seriously should take into account. After all, if you don’t believe in the full truth of the Bible, on which our doctrines are supposed to be based, how can you justify your particular doctrines — unless you resort once again to tradition and a magisterium? As to the societies that have adopted the Chicago Statement as a part of their statement of faith, they have not added another authoritative creed alongside the Bible, but have committed themselves to an interpretation that suits their identity. For Protestants, creeds are only as authoritative as we allow them to be, and the same thing applies to the Chicago Statement.

Thus, there is absolutely no inconsistency, let alone contradiction, in a Christian organization such as ISCA (International Society of Apoogetics) making reference to the creeds in clarifying its doctrinal basis. It is not thereby violating its avowed beliefs concerning the value of external traditions and authorities.


The sum of the entire lengthy exposition, along with its numerous side trips, is this. I have tried to describe the way in which Roman Catholicism has attempted to hold to their version of the historic Christian faith in light of the fact that there have been so many changes and additions over the two millennia. Their view of the historic Christian faith can be understood as a seed planted in the Bible and subsequently-- under the leadership of infallible human authorities--grown into a new and unforeseen shape by means accumulating historical creeds, traditions, encyclicals, and so forth. 

From the evangelical perspective, the historic Christian faith is delimited by the content of the Bible. Insofar as it is possible, the evangelical theologian will build up a biblically-based theology. If she is well-informed, she will use the creeds and other doctrinal statements as they are applicable, helpful, and biblical, but not on a par with Scripture.

Let me move towards a close with one particular biblical passage.

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2 HCSB)

Paul talks about a “deposit" that he has handed on (the origin of the word "tradition") to Timothy, and he tells Timothy to guard it and to pass it on to others, who will also teach other people. Catholic interpreters see in this verse the establishment of the line of authoritative extra-biblical tradition. But this cannot be. First of all, at that time, though most of the books of the canon had already been written or were being written, the canon had not been assembled yet, and so oral tradition was still all there was for almost everyone. There can be no extra-biblical tradition where there is no biblical tradition yet. The whole purpose of the New Testament canon was to collect precisely those writings that contained the teachings of the apostles, the "deposit."

Also, in his writings Paul has provided us in various places the perimeter of the gospel that he preached and taught (e.g., Galatians 1:6-10; 1 Corinthians 2:2), and there is no room left for additional doctrines reserved for any elite insiders. There can be no “Mahayana Christianity." The evangelical view is that this deposit has not changed since the time of Paul. It is the timeless gospel of Jesus Christ, which we learn about through sincere and informed study of the Bible. To put it bluntly, someone who was supposed to guard the deposit slipped up on the job. Further doctrines were added, embellishing practices were multiplied, and dubious beliefs became mandatory even though it is entirely impossible to connect them to the historic Christian faith that goes all the way back to the New Testament. As I said in the last entry, there can be little point in denying that these things happened. Two good indicators of that fact are a) the very obviously inconsistent doctrinal compromises of Vatican II, and b) the need for a theory such as Cardinal Newman’s, that would establish a non-rational way to explain how a body of belief can be mutated without being actually changed, and how those mutations validate its authenticity.

So, please, my Roman Catholic Christian friends, we can discuss theological issues and debate them. For the exploration of specific items of doctrine I recommend the course that Dr. Norm Geisler will teach at SES this fall. At your seminaries, please raise yourself out of the murky relativism that has been besetting Catholic theology for the last several decades (with Pope Clement a too-short exception) and go further in your argumentation than over-generalized declaration.  May I ask you, please, to teach that what Protestants believe to be the historic Christian faith is wrong and in the process closely examine the reasons for your position on the basis of a solid historical-grammatical approach to the Bible? Give us some content to talk about. At our seminaries, we are going to continue teach that what Catholics believe to be the historic Christian faith is wrong, and hopefully we are informed on the topic. In any event, pitching little mud packets at each other is neither scholarly nor helpful. Please keep in mind that the mud you may think you are aiming at only one or two persons may splatter on others as well, and it will undoubtedly leave its marks on your hands.


1 Responses So Far / Comments and Disagreement are Welcome. / Courtesy is Mandatory.

Thursday, July 24th 2014


The Historic Christian Faith, Part 5


I am aware of the fact that I'm repeating a lot of things that I've said within the collection of the previous series "How to do Theology." Hopefully I'm using sufficiently different words to keep it interesting. Then again, you may not have looked at that series. I have expressed the fundamental theological method by means of a pyramid that, in pure theory, represents the process of creating a theology and applying it.


Theological Pyramid


Let us take another look at the “Cultural Filter” that I have placed in between “Biblical Theology” and “Systematic Theology.” No matter how biblically grounded I may be in my views, I have no choice but to express biblical content in the language and context of my own culture, and my personal subjective background is going to play a role as well. I’m tempted to say that can’t be helped, but that would be a little silly because, were I able to express the biblical message in the precise terms of biblical culture, no one would be able to understand what I was saying in my present circumstances.

Thus, as a Protestant theologian, I seek to state biblical doctrine in the best terms provided by my culture. I try to retain the content as accurately as possible while framing it as carefully as I can into today’s context. Doing so faithfully will first of all require my openness to what the text of the Bible states. Along the line of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutical circle, I will come to the text with my preconceptions. I allow the text to correct my understanding on whatever teaching it contains. Then, the next time I read the same text, I will come to it with improved understanding, but may find more in the text that will improve my comprehension of it further.

Hermeneutical CircleDoes the hermeneutical circle work? To put it a little better, is its description of the interaction between a reader and a text accurate? I should think so. I imagine that the very act of your reading this post is a good example of the hermeneutical circle in action. You came to this entry with certain preconceptions, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. The fact is that, to a certain extent, you can never be sure what my subject of any given blog entry may be, and I like it that way. As I have mentioned from time to time, there have been occasions when I intended to write on one thing, but then got caught up in something else in the course of writing, and the new subject became the focal point for that entry. Still, given that I’ve been pursuing this topic for a little while now, that I’m using the same title, and that, perhaps you have some familiarity of my perspective by now, you may have a fairly good idea in general what you’re going to read. Obviously, you won’t know the specifics, but you’ll know that it’ll be about Catholic and Protestant theology at a minimum, and that I won’t discuss the effects of restrictor plates on stock car racing. And then, as you read this entry, you’ll try to figure out what I’m trying to say, and you’ll get a lot of it. If you should subject yourself to reading it over again, you’ll have a much better idea of what I’m saying right from the start, but you may pick up more details or come to a better understanding the second time around. And the third. And the—please why would anyone read my entries over and over again?

Now as I’m going through this process of understanding and applying the biblical content, the conclusions of two thousand years or so of Christian thought are going to play a role. Suppose that I came across John 10:30, “I and the Father are one,” I could not read that verse apart from the model of the Trinity as it was developed in connection with the Council of Nicaea. Nor would it make any sense for me to do otherwise. I neither can nor should ignore theology as it was formulated in earlier times, even when I might disagree with it. The International Society of Christian Apologetics, in its statement of faith, appeals to the Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian Creeds, but specifically limits their applicability: “For their clarification of the doctrine of the Trinity.”

The historical aspect of the cultural filter keeps us (or should keep us) from creating theological monstrosities. Still, there are too many times when the filter takes over and determines the content. For example, over the last forty years or so, there has been an enormous rise in the interest in and promotion of Christian philosophical theology. By and large coming from the methodology of English-language analytical philosophy, Christian doctrines have been clarified, undermined, redefined, defended, promoted, and rejected. And, let me hasten to add, that discussion is a good thing overall. Unfortunately, under the hands of some philosophers who either have had no training in theology, or did not make use of it, the Christian theology of twenty centuries is being rewritten by an uninformed analysis covering twenty pages. I don’t want to go into details here because doing so would turn us too far off-topic. Yes, even I have limits. Well, okay, I'll allow myself to emote about some of the scary things I can think of at the moment. 

  • Really, can one provide a helpful analysis of the relationship between the humanity and deity of Jesus without even knowing about the definition of Chalcedon and its teaching of one person with two natures?
  • Is there any excuse for discussing the doctrine of the virgin birth in terms of God “inseminating” Mary?
  • Should one be admired when one dismisses the doctrine of human fallenness with a single cynical declaration?

Agree or disagree with any particular doctrine; I, for one, will not take you seriously if you are unfamiliar with two thousand years of discussion on it and do not interact with it in an informed manner [References—perhaps—by way of personal inquiries]. And, ultimately, writers who do not give priority to the Bible over their own philosophical creativity cannot truly be classified as Protestants in my sense of the term, regardless of what their ecclesiastical affiliations may be. On the whole, Catholic philosophy has maintained more of the historical connections and, at a minimum, has given us subject matter to debate, rather than picking apart straw persons.

Furthermore, I can insist that the Bible is not an opaque book, at least not if you study it seriously and openly. Doing so includes taking note of the factors to which one would pay attention in any writings: the historical context of the documents and the most natural approach to the language of various passages. I once attended a philosophical conference at which the speaker “demonstrated” the difficulty in gaining a clear understanding of the Bible by a) showing how certain verses had been misinterpreted by medieval theologians in ways that were humorous to us, and b) pointing to rather insignificant, but again humorous, textual issues that led to further humorous misinterpretations. As you can see, humor ruled. The presentation were, indeed, entertaining, but demonstrated a profound (and unfunny) ignorance of basic methods of Bible study. I think we can take things in the other direction and argue that the fact that we find certain interpretations as wrong and humorous demonstrates that we have an inclination (again, at least minimally) towards a better, more correct, understanding. Furthermore, textual issues have nothing to do with either the truth or our comprehension of biblical content. Textual criticism occurs prior to other tasks because it sets out for us what manuscripts provide the inspired words that we must understand. Please see my collection of entries entitled "Confidence in the New Testament."

I mentioned a little while ago that one can’t (or shouldn’t) build an epistemology starting with what we cannot know (e.g., the dilemma of the Heisenberg principle). Similarly, it is counter-productive to produce a hermeneutic on the basis of what we cannot understand or have a difficult time understanding. If you can understand these words that are coming out of my laptop (indirect allusion to Rush Hour), you can understand the Bible in English translation.

If you are just taking up Bible reading, your capacity to understand it will be limited, of course. That’s presumably why God has given the gift of teaching to his body, the Church (1 Cor. 12:28), and such teaching is nowadays also embodied in books and in historical affirmations. Neither human teachers nor historical declarations are infallible, but they are helps that God is providing so that we can gain greater clarity about what he has revealed.

What I’m trying to convey is this. For people who are used to working under the umbrella of a magisterium, the Protestant idea of building a theology apart from the binding authority of an extra-biblical entity may seem risky and potentially dangerous, and there is no shortage of occasions that could serve as examples if they truly represented the best possible product Protestant theology. However, diligent study of the Bible will convey the content of its teachings to us. Consider that, when I'm talking to a Catholic Christian, despite the inevitable disagreements, we understand each other, share many beliefs, and comprehend many of the same historical  and biblical texts in the same way. One difference is that one of us holds certain extra-biblical texts as authoritative, and the other doesn't. 

The perspicuity of the Bible does not mean that you can engage in a little bit of casual Bible reading and then sit down to write a credible systematic theology. It does mean that if you have the patience and willingness to learn, the Bible will open itself to you. Also, it is true that, when you express what you have learned from the Bible, you can only do so in the terms of your background and current situation. However, you can improve your “current situation” by becoming conversant with the history of theology, which includes writings and declarations made over the course of the last two millennia. In other words, your present culture will affect what you are understanding and conveying, but it does not have to determine the content of what you are expressing.

I think I’ll need one or two more posts on this topic before I shall call it done.

0 Responses So Far / Comments and Disagreement are Welcome. / Courtesy is Mandatory.

Tuesday, July 22nd 2014


The Historic Christian Faith, Part 4


It is a truism that communication is a two-way process. Consequently interaction often requires a proper reaction.

She: Does this dress make me look fat?
He: No, dear, you look the same as always.
She: So, in other words, you’re saying that I always look fat?
He: That’s not what I meant.
She: Then what did you mean?
He: Well, uh, I meant that you’re not fat, and that the dress doesn’t make you look any fatter.
She: What do you mean it doesn’t make me look fatter? So, you are saying that I am fat!

I guess that kind of argument, which reminds me just a little of Cary Grant movie scripts, may conceivably take place somewhere in the world from time to time. I suppose that, before I go on, I should balance it with one in which the male takes the dense part.

She: I’m sorry you’re having to work so hard right now. The kids and I miss you.
He: In other words, you’re saying that I’m neglecting you and the kids.
She: No, that’s not what I meant.
He: Then what did you mean?
She: I just meant that it would be nicer if you were able to be around a little bit more than your work allows right now.
He: So, you are saying that I’m more committed to my work than my family, and I’m not being a good husband and father.

There may, perhaps, be better ways of getting a misunderstanding to escalate, but surely the “in other words, what you’re saying” routine is time-honored and effective, and the response of “That’s not what I meant” may not work too well, once there’s hostility in the air.

Nevertheless, for Protestants (in the general sense) the formulations of doctrines in the history of Christian thought could be seen as residing in that category. “That’s not what we mean to say.” I shall attempt to illustrate my point by giving a quite shallow description of a few events in church history, merely hoping to clarify what I mean.

The New Testament, written with apostolic authority (John 14:26), directs us think of Jesus as both God and a human being. During the time period of the “apostolic fathers,” which is the generation of church leaders immediately after the apostles, some people accepted only half of that conjunction. Perhaps they thought of the two descriptions as contradictory to each other. Some said that Jesus was only human, an idea that became known as the Ebionite heresy. Others eliminated the humanity of Jesus entirely. They said that he was only God and just appeared to be human: the heresy of Docetism. The fathers said, “No, that’s not what we mean.” They didn’t provide sophisticated philosophical explanations for what they believed, but they clearly recognized truncated and amputated versions of what they did believe.

Gnosticism with its dualistic metaphysics came along. Irenaeus responded by saying, “That’s not what we mean,” and his response was two-fold: to show that 1) the gnostics created arbitrary philosophical schemes out of nothing but their imaginations, and 2) that true Christian doctrine must be based on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

Arius became the center of attention in the early fourth century and declared that he had found a way of understanding the deity of Christ without getting without compromising monotheism. He said that here is only one God (the Father), but in the hierarchy of spiritual beings Christ is so close in standing to the Father that one can refer to him as “God” as a courtesy title. Christ ranks higher than any other created entity; he may even be timeless, but—and here is the correct version of the slogan—“there was when he was not.” He was just like the Father, but not the same as the Father. Arius had numerous followers, but many opponents as well. They debated the matter with the followers of Arius at Nicaea in AD 325. In the dialog below let “Nicaea” stand for the eventual orthodox conclusion and “Arius,” of course, for Arianism. I trust that you recognize that the version I’m giving here is my own caricature and does not represent any actual discussion.

Nicaea: “We believe that Christ is God.”
Arius: “I, too, believe that we should call him ‘God’ because his nature is so much like that of God.”
Nicaea: “That’s not what we mean.”
Arius: “Then what do you mean? “
Nicaea: “Hm. Give us a minute to figure this out. Yeah. Okay. This is what we’re trying to say: Christ is not just like God, he is of the very nature of God.”
Arius: “So, in other words, what you’re saying is that there are three gods.”
Nicaea: “That’s not what we mean.”
Arius: “Then what do you mean?”
Nicaea: “Hold on, we need another couple of minutes to think about what we really mean. It’s a lot easier to recognize what strikes us as obviously wrong in the light of the Bible, than to come up with a model that is faithful to the Bible and isn’t totally irrational. Okay, let’s say that God is one nature (substance, essence), and he exists eternally in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Arius: So, are you saying that everybody has to accept that model?
Me (if I may speak from the council’s distant future): Theoretically, no. It is a model constructed by human theologians in order to do justice to the New Testament affirmation that there is only one God and, simultaneously that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are God. The model of the Trinity serves to clarify the content of the Bible on this point. Hypothetically, if someone came up with a better model to understand the biblical data, we could embrace it, but that hasn’t happened, and I don’t think it’s possible.

Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity is not directly revealed in the Bible in the identical terms in which we state it in the creeds, but it provides the only model we have that’s faithful to Scripture, and so we accept it as a part of the historic Christian faith.

The same reactive approach can be seen in the story that led up to the Definition of Chalcedon. For more details than I’m providing here, please consult a good book on early Christianity or Christian doctrine. I recommend J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines as well as my Handmaid to Theology. As Arianism was beginning to wane, the question of how we are to understand the relationship between the Deity of Christ and his humanity came to the forefront. The extremes in denial (Ebionitism, Docetism) had been ruled out. Now the concern was what must be affirmed, and again there were some extremes that went beyond the biblical or reasonable boundaries. Some people taught that Christ was one person who had one nature that combined both his humanity and his deity (monophysitism, Eusebianism). Reaction: “That’s not what we mean. Christ was both fully God and fully human” Others made such a sharp distinction between Christ as human and Christ as God (Nestorianism) that it appeared that he was actually two persons, each with a different nature. Reaction: “Surely that’s not what we mean. Christ was only one person.”

Incredibly, this dispute actually produced physical violence between monasteries holding different views, viz. not by armies but by monks against monks. The situation was similar to, though fortunately more temporary than, the long drawn-out wars fought between different schools of Buddhism and their monastics. As far as I know the Christian disputants did not ordain monks specifically to serve as their soldiers, as Buddhists did in Tibet and Japan. Still, it was not a moment of glory in Christendom.

Finally, the council of Chalcedon (AD 451) set the course toward a settlement by expressing a model consistent with what the Bible says about Christ and what we mean when we say that he is both human and divine. He is one person with two natures; one may neither split the two natures up so that the result is two persons, nor should one blend them to the point of there being only one hybrid nature. Again, was the definition of Chalcedon revealed? Not directly, but it sets the parameters for a model that does justice to the biblical content.

However, one should not generalize from there to the conclusion that whatever has been decided at a council must ipso facto be faithful to the biblical information and true. Confessional commitment aside, Cardinal Newman’s theory of the organic growth of doctrine as well as the inconsistent compromise statements of Vatican II should raise a red flag and get us to realize that not everything that has been declared to be true in the history of Christianity must be true or even can be true.

Not that Roman Catholic theology would hold such an absurd position. There are many doctrines that the magisterium and the councils have exposed and rejected as error. But the commitment to apostolic succession and the transmission of infallibility has tied the Church’s hands. It is not easy to reject beliefs of the past, even if they are unbiblical, if one lives under the dogma that ancient traditions may carry the same authority as the Bible. This difficulty is exacerbated when the extra-biblical material is adjudicated by one man and his advisors.

While we're on that subject, let us take another quick sideward glance into Vatican II. In Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the gathered bishops and cardinals expressed themselves concerning authority in the Church. In an earlier post in this series I alluded to the controversy over whether a council has greater authority than a pope; unsurprisingly most popes have taken a negative position on that issue. (Perhaps John XXIII, the pope who convened Vatican II, would not have.) The document, in addressing this issue, voiced an opinion that at first seems to be quite in keeping with the traditional understanding of the hierarchy. However, it caused alarm bells to ring in the Holy Office.

First, some statements from within the document. This is the last passage in section 20:

And just as the office granted individually to Peter, the first among the apostles, is permanent and is to be transmitted to his successors, so also the apostles' office of nurturing the Church is permanent, and is to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops. Therefore, the Sacred Council teaches that bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ. (Abbott, 40)

Apostolic succession and the transmission of truth includes the bishops of the Church. It is not just limited to the pope, though the pope rules over them, and the document duly acknowledges that fact in the middle of section 22:

The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head. This power can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff. For our Lord placed Simon alone as the rock and the bearer of the keys of the Church, and made him shepherd of the whole flock; it is evident, however, that the power of binding and loosing, which was given to Peter, was granted also to the college of apostles, joined with their head. (Abbot, 43)

The college of apostles, as embodied nowadays by the bishops, has authority, but never without the pope. In fact, the council ranked the authority of councils higher than anything else, except that any true council is also directed by the pope.

The supreme power in the universal Church, which this college enjoys, is exercised in a solemn way in an ecumenical council. A council is never ecumenical unless it is confirmed or at least accepted as such by the successor of Peter; and it is prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to convoke these councils, to preside over them and to confirm them. (Abbot, 44)

So, as I said above, it would appear that there are no problems here with regard to the authority of the pope. The document clearly states that the college of bishops or cardinals, or even an ecumenical council, have no power apart from the pope. But the catch can perhaps best be understood by means of a question, which simplifies things a little: Does the pope have authority as head within the college or over the college. The document goes to great lengths to recognize the supremacy of the pope within the college, but the statements in Lumen Gentium were not quite strong enough for Pope Paul VI in stressing the juridical authority of the papacy. On the eve of the vote on the document (Nov. 16, 1964), the secretary general of the council issued a clarification that undoubtedly came from the Holy Office itself. The fact that this intervention occurred demonstrates that the issue was real. This supplement, called "a preliminary note of explanation," was considered to be the official papal interpretation of that section of Lumen Gentium—before it had even been ratified.

The parallel between Peter and the rest of the Apostles on the one hand, and between the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops on the other hand, does not imply the transmission of the Apostles' extraordinary power to their successors; nor does it imply, as is obvious, equality between the head of the College and its members, but only a proportionality between the first relationship (Peter-Apostles) and the second (Pope-bishops). (Abbot, 99)

My point should be fairly clear. Even Vatican II, with all its zeal for renewal and reform, found itself lassoed in by the papacy. I’m not entitled to take sides on the issue on who was right, but the documents speak loudly as to what happened.

To be continued. 

2 Responses So Far / Comments and Disagreement are Welcome. / Courtesy is Mandatory.

Sunday, July 20th 2014


The Historic Christian Faith, Part 3

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Hanging in

These entries are clearly quite long. However, since my motivation to address this topic at all has been the intent to provide information in the hope that I might further the cause of knowledge and understanding, I’m not going to impede my propensity toward “stacking” this time around. If I don’t give you background ideas and events, I’m not doing anything different than repeating the standard polemics. I hope that you will have the patience to read and think through this Mt. Everest of words.

The growth of Christian doctrine over the centuries is not easy to explain if one does not take into account the fact that the people involved were not essentially different from you and me. They were just a intelligent and just as fallible; they were just as committed to the Lord and just as prone to sin. Once one begins with a picture that’s overbalanced in either direction, a virtually impenetrable curtain enshrouds the history of Christian thought.

On the one hand, if one treats the important leaders of various confession and the councils as infallible authorities, the liability is that either certain biblically-based beliefs may be forbidden, or other beliefs that do not have a grounding in the Bible may be declared as mandatory truths. On the other hand, to deem the history of Christian thought as irrelevant is unrealistic. Clearly our beliefs and practices have taken their current shape in the passage of historical events, including pronouncements of individuals and councils or a reaction against them. No one can escape their cultural heritage.

It may be helpful if I provided a couple of definitions. I have made reference to the distinction between Catholics and Protestants, and a couple of times I’ve added the term “free churches,” which I will explain below. Obviously, there are further important Christian groups, such as the Eastern Orthodox, Nestorians, Thomas Christians, and so forth, but the discussion to which I’m hoping to contribute is not directly catalyzed by them, and it would be totally unrealistic for me to include everyone who thinks of themselves as different in my considerations. “Catholicism” is very clearly the teaching of the church that follows the leadership of the bishop of Rome, the pope. The word “Protestantism” does not have a directly theological etymology. It does not derive from the idea that Luther “protested” against the Catholic Church, though it obviously has a strong connection with it. It think it's worthwhile to look at the events that gave rise to the term Protestant. So, here's my first instance of stacking for today.

The Origin of the term Protestantism. If you know even just a few items in Church History, the Reformation and the Diet of Worms are probably familiar terms for you. Luther nailed the 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg in 1517. Several debates ensued. Please see my blog entry of April 21 of this year, where I focused in on this time period and especially on Cardinal Cajetan. An important question with regard to Luther was whether the final theological disposition of his ideas should come from a council or the pope. A council seeking consensus in the Church might have been a good idea to give Luther’s theology a hearing and perhaps even leave the Church intact. But the pope was opposed to the notion that a council might have greater authority than he, and Luther certainly was aware of what had happened to Jan Hus at the Council of Constance (1414-1418). The pope himself settled the matter by declaring that Luther was a heretic with the Bull Exsurge Domine in 1520.

Still, it is one thing to state that someone is a heretic, it is another to do something concrete about it. The practice had become that, once someone had received the label from the Church, he or she would be turned over to the civil authorities for further prosecution and condemnation. In Luther’s case, he was brought to trial at the diet that was being held in the city of Worms. A diet (related to the Latin word dies, “day”) was the regular consultation of the emperor with his princes. If there was no emperor, the princes designated as “electors” could choose who among those who ranked the highest would become the new emperor. At the time Charles V  was the emperor, but he had only been held that office since 1519. At the time he was on good terms with the Vatican, though later on things did not always go smoothly. History books depict him as a devoted Catholic, and his decisions were presumably not merely pragmatic, but based on his personal beliefs. In 1521, when Luther made his famous declaration at the diet in the presence of the emperor,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. [Here I stand, I can do no other.] May God help me. Amen.

Charles issued his judgment, which became known as the Edict of Worms:

We forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.

Easier said than done; some men in the service of Fredrick, Elector of Saxony, spirited Luther away to be in hiding at the Wartburg until the edict of Worms would run out and he would be safe again.

Woops! There’s a problem with that last sentence. Edicts don’t usually come with a time limit. The emperor himself would have to rescind it, and he never did. However, Charles V was a rather busy man, serving not only as the head of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations, but also as the King of Spain and prince of various other, smaller holdings. It was on his watch that Magellan attempted to sail around the world and that the Spanish conquistadors took over the Aztec and Inca empires. In addition to various uprisings in his territories, he had to contend with the Ottoman Turks, who, under Suleiman the Magnificent, expanded their empire right up to the gates of Vienna. Consequently, he was not able to attend all of the diets and to keep tight reins on their decisions in theological matters.

When a diet was held in 1526 in the town of Speyer, Charles’ brother, the Archduke Ferdinand I of Austria was in charge. By that time, a number of German princes had embraced Lutheranism and Reformed Christianity, and it had become clear that any ecclesiastical reconciliation was not going to be feasible without a great amount of effort. Furthermore, the relationship between Charles and the Vatican had soured, and now Charles advocated that a council should deal with the growing schism in the Church, much to the pope's chagrin. Thus, Archduke Ferdinand declared that a soon-to-be-convened council would settle theological matters, and that in the meantime, the princes should uphold the Edict of Worms in keeping with their obedience to the emperor and their consciences. A number of the German princes interpreted this declaration as a concession that allowed them to set aside the Edict and to let Lutheranism become the official confession in the lands that they governed. In other words, they considered the Edict of Worms to be annulled in their territories. That interpretation had not been Ferdinand’s intention, and when Charles heard of this development, he was deeply annoyed.

Still, Charles was also unable to attend the next diet, held once more in Speyer in 1529, because he was occupied with Turkish aggression.[1]  Once again, Ferdinand spoke on his behalf, this time emphasizing that the Edict of Worms was still in force in all of Charles’ territories and would remain so until the council, which would be convened any time now, declared otherwise. At that point, the German Reformed and Lutheran princes filed an official written protest against what they considered to be an arbitrary decision. It is this “protest” that led to those who joined in it to being called “Protestants.” Although their appeal fell on deaf ears, the protesting princes were politically strong enough that from that point on the policy that the confession of a prince of a certain territory would be the religion of his subjects set itself in place. (Not that, thereby, all questioned were settled. The thirty-years war in the early seventeenth century would still ensue.

These issues only affected those Christian groups that lived under the protection of a prince. Groups such as the Anabaptists and other sects were neither included in the Diet of Worms nor in its possible mitigation. They had been considered heretical and subject to execution all along. These groups are what I referred to as “free churches,” in the sense that they were neither endorsed nor supported by a government. Nowadays, we tend to lump most of these branches of the Christian Church together under the heading of “Protestants,” and, despite the lack of historical precision, I don’t see much harm in doing so in a conceptual context because they share the commitment to biblical authority as superseding any human authority. As a generalization, you’re not necessarily a Protestant if you’re a theologically orthodox Christian who is neither Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox, but you can’t be a Protestant unless you’re the above. Mormons, Christian Scientists, and United Pentecostals default due to problems of orthodoxy. Pop!

Protestant Orthodoxy? Part 1. And that observation takes us back to the question of how Protestantism even can have an “orthodoxy” apart from a magisterium. The answer still lies in the controversial phrase at the heart of the present discussion, namely, they are orthodox insofar as they maintain the historic Christian faith.

Please, look over my posting entitled “How to Do Theology.” I need to restate some of the things I said early on in that series, though for the most part in abridged form (I hope—we’ll see if I can bring that off).

I stated early on in this entry that “no one can escape their cultural heritage,” and this judgment would include theologians even if I had not intended to speak of them. If we adopt a little bit of an analytic point of view, despite what we may claim, no one today teaches directly what the Bible teaches. This statement verges on the inane, when we consider that we don’t use Koiné Greek or the concepts that the apostles used in thinking or speaking. There are two thousand years of church history in between that have left their mark on our thinking. Whether it be theories of the atonement, the Godhead, or how we understand communion, we deliberate and propagate our ideas in the terms that reside in our cultures. Our thought patterns are heavily influenced by our environments, upbringing, education, gender, nationality, socio-economic setting, and so forth, not to mention experience of a purely personal nature. We cannot leapfrog over them; that can’t be helped. The question is, in a serious application of Humpty Dumpty's verbal imperialism, "which is to be master --- that's all." We seek to express the content of the Bible in such a way that it is clear, and doing so entails using the means that our culture puts at our disposal. However, we also seek, to whatever extent it is possible, not to allow cultural influences  to distort the biblical message.

As I stated last time, the result of a theological method that relies on biblical interpretation without mandatory doctrinal formulations is not going to be able to get around the fact that there will be different groups with differing variations in theology. Interestingly, it was precisely the quest for a doctrinal community that motivated Newman to convert to Catholicism. He did not appreciate Protestant individualism. I do, perhaps more than many people.

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus. Here is another point of difference between Protestants and Catholics. As I brought up before, apostolic succession obviously entails the reliability of the transmission or truth. Consequently, the Catholic Church is seen as the community of truth that facilitates salvation. In fact, there used to be a saying that the Church represented the ark of salvation, and it was necessary to be on board of that vessel in order to reach heaven. In other words, a corporate bond with the Church, by which is meant the earthly institution governed by the Roman pontiff was believed to be necessary for someone to be saved. It was frequently expressed by the Latin phrase, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “no salvation outside of the church.”

This doctrine is still firmly in place.

Whoa! Doesn’t Vatican II declare that everyone ranging from Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, right down to sincere atheists can be saved?

Yes, it does so, but we should look more closely at the basis of this declaration to understand it correctly. In fact, at the risk of extending this spontaneous series into infinity, I can’t help myself and will give you a few highlights of the history of the doctrine. Thus we enter the second stack of this entry.

The doctrine of the exclusivity of the Catholic Church was strongly expressed by Pope Boniface VIII in the Bull Unam Sanctam in 1302. Its main purpose was to go one step further and to argue that the head of the Church occupies a higher position than any temporal government, but we need not deal with that claim at the moment. The words of Boniface are here as an illustration of his view on the exclusive nature of the Catholic Church. You may have picked up before that I really I dislike conflated quotations, but they are an unavoidable drawback here, and I’m providing links so that you can read the surrounding content.

Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins. … There had been at the time of the deluge only one ark of Noah, prefiguring the one Church, which ark, having been finished to a single cubit, had only one pilot and guide, i.e., Noah, and we read that, outside of this ark, all that subsisted on the earth was destroyed. … We declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

If this declaration leaves any doubt in anyone’s mind, Eugene IV, who was pope during the time of the Great Schism, stated in the Bull Cantate Domino in 1441:

[The sacrosanct Roman Church] firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.

Several of the websites that reproduce this document stress that this papal pronouncement is ex cathedra, viz. given by the pope in his official role. There is some internal discussion on whether it is, therefore, to be accepted as de fide. (I thought the two went hand-in-hand.) For our purposes, namely, tracing the idea by way of some examples, it is sufficient to say that papal decrees never came without any authority. The tone changed under Pope Pius IX who in a more humble spirit declared in Singulari Quadam in 1854.

Not without sorrow have we learned that another error, no less destructive, has taken possession of some parts of the Catholic world, and has taken up its abode in the souls of many Catholics who think that one should have good hope of the eternal salvation of all those who have never lived in the true Church of Christ. ... Far be it from Us, Venerable Brethren, to presume on the limits of the divine mercy which is infinite; far from Us, to wish to scrutinize the hidden counsel and "judgments of God" which are "a great deep" (Psalms 36:6) and cannot be penetrated by human thought. ... For, it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood; but, on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, are not stained by any guilt in this matter in the eyes of God. Now, in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things?

Thus, Pius IX foreshadowed the more inclusive attitude demonstrated by Vatican II. And so we turn to Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, as promulgated by Vatican II, specifically its sections 14,15, and 16 (Abbott, 32-35). Section 14 provides a statement of who will receive salvation by drawing some rather clear lines in the sand. I need to give some lengthy excerpts because only completeness can yield clarity on this issue.

This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.

Section 14 goes on to state that even one who is externally a member of the Church but “does not live in charity” is also not saved. On the other hand, those who intended to become Catholic, viz. those preparing themselves by studying the catechism, are already saved, even if they should die prior to being officially baptized into the Church. We see here that the ecumenicity of Vatican II is far from a universalism. Membership in the Church is necessary, but not sufficient.

Then again, how necessary is it? What about those aforementioned groups of people who are clearly not a part of the Roman Catholic Church? The Church is still the “ark,” and those other groups are vessels of inferior quality, but they manage to remain afloat because they are connected to the ark. Section 15 begins:

The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who …[emphasis mine]. The groups mentioned are not entirely extra ecclesiam, “outside of the Church,” though they’re not entirely inside of it either. So, to continue a little further with that paragraph, the document acknowledges a relationship of the true Church to other Christian groups, including Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and Protestants.

The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. … In all of Christ's disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this end.

The goal of bringing all Christians together under the Roman banner is still there, just as many other religious groups look for their own faith to become universal on the globe, so this is no vice. It does mute some of the shallower descriptions of the ecumenism of Vatican II. (In my theology, Jesus Christ will return and initiate the millennium, viz. reign on earth for a thousand years.)

It is not only other Christian groups who are included. Jews and Muslims may qualify as well. Maybe my repetition of this point is becoming annoying, but it’s the point I’m trying to demonstrate here: The qualification of these groups for salvation is expressed  in terms of a relationship to the Church, referred to her as “the people of God.”

Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh (emphasis mine).

As we read section 16, the corporate bonds are still in evidence in the reference to the Jews, but they no longer appear once the document addresses those groups who are definitely not biblical. Now I need to bring up another point that is crucial to understand the nature of salvation here. Evangelicals and most other Protestants think that, if they're saved, once they have died they will wake up in the presence of Christ or in heaven. More sophisticated versions may insert an intermediate state prior to the resurrection with Christ, but even then the blessings start immediately. One should not think that the Council intends to declare such instant salvation for members of groups mentioned last--if for anyone at all. Vatican II did not abolish the idea of purgatory, a state in which the sanctification of an individual is completed so that he or she will become truly worthy to be in the presence of God. Thus, it would be wrong to think that when Lumen Gentium declares that even idolaters are eligible for divine grace, that their idolatry is, therefore, overlooked. It may take quite a while in purgatory before they are ready for heaven. The groups who are increasingly distant, but not excluded, are:

The Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.

Those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God. Clearly, this reference is to religions that contain idolatry, but it is generally assumed that this expression is intended to refer particularly to Hindus and Buddhists.  

• Those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.

Now the council is including well-intentioned atheists. The statement continues with their fate in view:

Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.

As mentioned above, it is a fair inference that, even though these people are not going to be eternally lost, that they will finally be brought to the point of qualifying for salvation after a sufficient amount of time spent in purgatory. In any event, there is confusion in the world, and thus, it continues to be necessary to engage in evangelism:

But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, "Preach the Gospel to every creature", the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

To be continued.

[1] This remark is not related to the topic, but I can't forego pointing out that here we have a good example of Muslim armies fighting to acquire new territory. Furthermore, I see no intelligent way in which one could rationalize that they were recovering lands that previously belong to Islam or that they were coming to the aid of the residents of Vienna, who desperately desired to live under the Sultan's rule, but were forbidden to do so by their intolerant government.

0 Responses So Far / Comments and Disagreement are Welcome. / Courtesy is Mandatory.

Friday, July 18th 2014


The Historic Christian Faith, Part 2


If you read my last entry as a critique of Roman Catholic theology, you have missed the point. I provided an overview of Newman’s theory on the development of doctrine in the context of the debate among Catholic theologians. Despite Newman’s confident assertions that the true church, that is to say, the legitimate descendent of the early primitive church, can only be the Roman one, he was not really arguing against Protestantism at that point, just pitching a little dirt. I am amused by the cavalier way in which he dismissed Protestantism,  but, as I was saying before, the Essay on the Development of Doctrine was not intended as a defense of Catholicism per se. He was constructing a theory in order to explain how the Catholic communion, despite undeniable changes in doctrine and practice, can still be the single and unique representation of the early church.

I left off with some questions that theologians in the Catholic tradition should be able to answer in an external debate. I assume that, from the vantage point of their tradition, they would answer them positively. I expect, for instance, that someone who believed in the doctrine of apostolic succession, a cornerstone of Roman Catholic theology, would also agree that apostolic succession entails the transmission of truth. Since I am not a Catholic, I am in no position to tell Catholics what they should believe to be true to Catholic doctrine. However, without overstepping the boundary of what is possible or polite, I can enunciate reasons why I think that certain Catholic doctrines, as I have learned them from Catholic people and their writings, are wrong, and why I do not think that the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church can lay claim to representing the “historic Christian faith."

I’m going to proceed slowly and hopefully with sufficient nuance that it doesn’t appear as though I was making the matter easy on myself. Let me avail myself of the device that I used throughout No Doubt About It and begin with a vignette. I do not have a clear memory of the names of the people involved forty-some years ago, so “Frank” and “Rachel” are my attempts at avoiding awkward descriptive substitutes, such as “the Catholic girl” or “the Jesuit priest.”

Vignette 1. I think it was in my sophomore year that Fr. Frank was a regular visitor to the commuter cafeteria of the University of Maryland. He was a Jesuit, working on his Ph.D. in chemistry. (Let me quickly explain that one of the several distinctions between the Jesuits and various other orders is that each member is required to be ordained as a priest and have full credentials in an academic field. The second area of study might be theology or philosophy, but, as we can see in Fr. Frank’s example, it could also be in other disciplines, including the natural sciences.)

On days when his schedule allowed, Fr. Frank, S.J. would sit for an hour or so during lunch time at a table in the cafeteria, quite conspicuous with his clerical collar, attracting the attention of students like me as though he was a magnet. I was thinking of myself as “witnessing” to him, while his agenda clearly was to get the students who were chatting with him to think through what they claimed to believe. Typically, he would ask questions, listen to our answers, and then respond with follow-up questions that had probably not occurred to us. His regular “flock” of conversation partners ranged from Catholics to skeptics to evangelicals. I have no idea how many times he must have heard someone tell him what he must believe since he was a Catholic priest. Rightly or wrongly, he took it in stride and good humor.

One day, as five or six of us were gathered around the table, he stipulated a scenario—merely as a hypothesis—according to which a young couple would be in a position to have sexual relations before marriage without the liability that anyone else would be hurt or even inconvenienced by their action. Under those conditions, would it still be wrong? Rachel, a Catholic girl, immediately spoke up. She said that it was wrong because her Church had forbidden it. Personally, I thought that she had given a rather shallow answer, but to my surprise, Fr. Frank lauded her. He said that hers was a very good answer, and then he started fielding arguments to the contrary brought up by a skeptical philosophy major. I did not have anything particular to contribute. I agreed with Rachel insofar as I, too, thought pre-marital sex was wrong, except that I would have given a better answer (I thought) because the basis for my judgment was the Bible, the inspired Word of God, not the human institution of the Church.

But was my thought really any better than Rachel’s answer? Even more importantly, was it even genuinely different from hers? Wasn’t her appeal to the authority of the Church merely an indirect way of affirming biblical teaching? And wasn’t the biblical standard to which I was appealing in my mind actually something that I had learned, not from the Bible directly, but from other, historically conditioned speakers and writers, who had declared that theirs was the correct biblical interpretation?

I must acknowledge in retrospect that Fr. Frank was correct in praising Rachel’s answer, even if he may have been just a little patronizing. She was a Catholic, and, thus, was obligated to obey the teachings of the Church. In her role as a Catholic lay person, the idea that she should follow the rules that she had been taught without second-guessing them, was the proper Catholic attitude, and Fr. Frank needed to affirm it, lest he give her reason to stray.

Vatican 2 Revelation

Let me back-pedal for a second and add another word concerning the official post-Vatican II stance on revelation. In the previous entry I directed your attention to the fact that Roman Catholic theology relies on both Scripture and tradition. As a result, it has become customary to speak of a “two-source” doctrine of revelation.” However, we need to take another look at one of the excerpts from Vatican II and notice that it stipulates a single source of revelation prior to its division into scripture and tradition as well as a unified set of conclusions and applications subsequent to the division.

For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. … Sacred tradition and Scripture(Abbott, 117).

There is a single revelation, designated as the word of God, and, if I may put it in this way, there are "two points of access" to this revelation.

If I were a Catholic Christian, I personally might get confused on how to process the information that comes up through these two points of access, but my opinion would actually bear negligible significance since I would not have the privilege of making such decisions. Nor would it be much different if I were a priest, or, in many cases, even a bishop. It is the magisterium that has the authority to declare what is the word of God revealed in Scripture and tradition. To quote,

The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ (emphasis mine, Abbot, 117-18).

Needless to say, since I was a Baptist at the time, Rachel's standard could not apply to me, because I believed then, and still do now, that our beliefs and moral convictions should have a biblical basis. But I must hasten to add that my answer would be no better than Rachel’s if I didn't practice my reliance on the Bible, and there we encounter an obvious point of vulnerability.

Protestantism lays claim to the Bible alone as authoritative, summarized with the phrase sola scriptura, one of the slogans of the Reformation when people still spoke Latin. Now, I said that I wasn’t going to make this matter easy for me, so I must confess that Protestant practices often do not live up to Protestant claims. Saying so doesn’t make it so. In a recent issue of Christian Scholar’s Review [43, 3 (Spring 2014):233-39], David Crump laments the fact that a number of important people in his particular denomination apparently believe that the Bible is an unclear book whose teaching is confusing to most readers. Consequently, his denomination urges that, since their three creedal confessions provide the correct understanding of Scripture, it is to these that one should look so as “to be formed and governed by them.” Since he did not hide his affiliation, I’m not committing an indiscretion when I say that I was particularly struck by this exposé since the name of his denomination includes the word “Reformed.” Assuming that he described the state of affairs correctly (and I have no reason to believe otherwise), we may have here a case where the appeal to human authority may be at least as strong as in contemporary Catholicism.

Coming at the issue from the other side, it is not difficult to demonstrate that, in the absence of a magisterium, a part of theological Christendom that we place under the heading of "Protestantism," can become downright chaotic. Speaking with some hyperbole, if the Bible is the one and only source of revelation, and if every person is free to interpret the Bible according to their best insights, there would appear to be no limit to what a person may come up with. Lamentable as that situation is, it is the price one pays for the absence of an institution that supervises theological creativity. However, since we want to deal with reality and not just a thought experiment, we need not let the aberrations set the standard. If one takes away the hyperbole, discards clearly absurd, non-sequitur doctrinal formulations, and stipulates earnest study of the Bible in keeping with a rational methodology (i.e., a historic-grammatical hermeneutic), the collection of Protestant groups that we need to take seriously in this discussion shrinks very quickly.

In the previous entry, I defined the Protestant view of the historic Christian faith as the teachings of the New Testament, subsequently clarified by councils and various theologians. The historic Christian faith is what we find in Scripture. If a belief violates Scripture it is false; if it is not based on Scripture, it is not obligatory to believe it. On the one hand, the result is that there are differences between denominations and other Christian groups; on the other hand, at least in theory, it is possible, even commendable, to discern truth among various options by studying Scripture without (again in theory) having to postulate a pre-determined outcome.

Still, if I claim that my theology is based directly on the Bible, am I not deceiving myself or others? Don’t my colleagues and I make reference to the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, not to mention the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, in the formulation of the ISCA statement of faith? Are we or are we not committed to sola scriptura?

The very simple answer is that we are. The nature of the answer depends on how much importance we ascribe to the outcomes of such councils and meetings. It is my position, shared by others, that the various councils, whether early, late, or recent, are not authoritative on a par with the Bible, but in various instances clarify bibilical truth.

We need to recognize three important distinctions, namely between what we conside to be 1) beliefs necessary for salvation, 2) a true and complete theology, and 3) requirements set by humans for membership in a human institution. If I may use myself as an example, I hold to a set of beliefs that I trust have biblical support. Furthermore, I'm inclined to think that they come closest to those biblical teachings that I would label as the “historic Christian faith.” That attitude, should not be either startling or viewed as a sign of arrogance. Everyone engaged in serious theological work should presumably be motivated to get as close to the truth as they can and believe that, in all humility and in full view of their fallibility, their work up to that point is the best one can do. For evangelicals that means believing that their work comes as close as possible to biblical truth, aka the "historic Christian faith." If not, perhaps one can find room  among the radical pseudo-theologians representing "secular," "process," or "Buddhist" Christianity for whom the biblical content is a hindrance. But even they +

Still, I certainly do not think that a person must be in agreement (let alone “complete agreement”) with my beliefs in order to be saved. Norm Geisler made a noteworthy presentation on this topic at the first organizational meeting of ISCA. I’m using my own words to summarize it. First he demonstrated that the theological planks underlying the gospel message are numerous and ramified. However, what is necessary for saving faith is not to subscribe to the entire doctrinal structure but merely to believe in a meaningful sense that you are a sinner separated from God, that Christ, the Son of God, died for your sins and was resurrected, and that by reliance on Christ you are reconciled to God, none of which can be believed to be true without first of all accepting the Bible as true.

Speaking for myself again, the true Church is undoubtedly populated by a lot of people with whom I have a lot of theological disagreements. I cannot avoid the inference that, therefore, they do not subscribe entirely to the doctrines of the historic Christian faith as I understand it. But they are certainly Christians.

Please do not read relativism into what I’m writing here. I’m not saying that any person’s beliefs are just as good as or, worse yet, as true as anyone else’s. Nor am I implying that it is not possible to adjudicate between beliefs. For example, if you and I have mutually exclusive views on the meaning of the Lord’s supper, then one of us is wrong, and one of us is right, and since you are wrong, you should learn to understand the Bible the way I do. Or, conceivably, vice versa. (I trust no one misses the tongue in my cheek here.)

Not every error is a “heresy,” a term that I reserve for an error of such proportion that it undercuts the basics of Christianity. This observation does not demonstrate a delusion of magnanimity or early-outbreak-humility on my part; it’s just a reality with which we all have to live. If someone teaches a doctrinal opinion with which I disagree, I need to learn to live with that fact. If possible we can discuss it or debate it, but I can't (or shouldn't) be offended by it.  

Here's a perhaps amusing sidelight. When Hegel had become a quite popular professor in Berlin, some time in the 1820s, a certain Catholic clergyman used to sit in on his lectures. One day Hegel made a rather disparaging (and, in my opinion, ignorant) remark about the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. “Political correctness” is a lot older than you may think because the auditor immediately reported Hegel to the authorities for his intolerance toward the Catholic confession. In his defense Hegel stated that, as it was his job as a Protestant to teach Protestant thought in a Protestant department, a Catholic believer who would be offended by his statements would best be advised not to attend his lectures. My point is that, even though I may wish that everyone shared my beliefs,  since they obviously don't I need to make accommodations.

Without considering a Christian whose beliefs on certain points of doctrine are different from mine as a non-Christian or lesser Christian, I’m still free to limit my association in various contexts to those whose views come closer to mine than others. I don’t expect to be permitted to join an organization that mandates acceptance of the Old Testament Apocrypha as inspired; and I don’t understand why someone who accepts them would be upset if he can’t join an organization that explicitly denies their inspiration. Somewhere someone (to whom I would gladly give credit if I knew his identity) uttered the phrase: “A gospel so simple that a child can understand it; a theology so profound that it”—hm, I don’t remember what the ast part was, so I’ll supply my own: “boggles the mind.” Next time I'll stop qualifying and try to go further with the issue of how we can bring off such a desirable result.

0 Responses So Far / Comments and Disagreement are Welcome. / Courtesy is Mandatory.